“A filmmaker makes one film in their life, then breaks it up and makes it again,” said Jean Renoir. If this is true, then Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” is an attempt to refine “Taxi Driver” (1976).
Oscar Isaac’s starrer film, The Card Counter, follows an ex-convict who learns to count cards and becomes a low-profile poker player. While surviving, he meets an ex-associate’s son burning with a vengeance. Oscar’s character believes that he can save a soul from committing a sin. And if this act of saving can be an influence from Schrader’s famous work, “Taxi Driver.”
“The Card Counter” is written and directed by Paul Schrader and tries to be artistic as well as crafty in its own realm.
‘The Card Counter’ Plot Summary
William “Bill” Tell (Oscar Isaac) serves 8 years in an American military prison (U.S.D.B.), where he learns to count cards. After his release, Bill becomes an anonymous poker (card) player who “bets small and wins small.” He roams from casino to casino in the United States and lives a life under the radar.
During his visit to the Washa Casino, Bill runs into an old acquaintance, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), from the gambling world. Linda works as a mediator between professional gamblers and investors who financially support gamblers in exchange for a split of their winnings. Linda, already impressed by Bill’s skills from previous games, offers to find someone to stake on him so that he can bet big and win big. However, a modest Bill believes it’s a trap that burdens the gamblers. There is a weight a gambler can accrue by accepting financial backing. Thus, he politely refuses Linda’s offer.
In Atlantic City, Bill comes across a Global Security Seminar (G.S.C.) and gets intrigued by its speaker, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). While leaving the seminar, a mysterious young boy, Cirk Baufort, recognizes Bill and hands him his number. Cirk requests Bill to contact him later, and a restless Bill ends up meeting the strange boy.
Bill soon learns that Cirk wants to kill Major John Gordo for his personal reasons, and Bill decides to save the kid from committing a grave crime.
Who was Major John Gordo?
John Gordo was a private contractor who excelled in the arts of enhanced interrogation. He came under the C.I.A.’s attention during the Contras counterinsurgency (right-wing rebels funded by the U.S. government from 1979 to the early 1990s). According to notes written by Bill, Gordo’s real name was John Rogers, and he was born in Georgia.
Gordo was trained in “interrogation” in Nicaragua (Central America) and then entered the SERE program (Survival. Evasion. Resistance. Escape). The SERE program was devised to help captured U.S. soldiers withstand extremely hostile interrogations.
However, after the foreign fighters at the Guantanamo detention camp refused to speak during the interrogations, the decision was made to reverse engineer the tactics of the SERE program. SERE psycho operation instructors were brought to Gitmo camp to devise enhanced interrogation techniques. The first one to arrive was consultant John Gordo.
The techniques of the Gitmo camp were later conveyed to interrogation sites around the world. In 2003, the U.S. government adopted these enhanced interrogation techniques for their civilian prisons at Bagram airfield and Abu Ghraib (Prison in Iraq).
Major John Gordo, a civilian consultant, arrived at Abu Ghraib in May. P.F.C. William “Bill” Tilich and Cirk’s father, Roger Baufort, met Gordo in Abu Ghraib, where he trained them in the art of enhanced interrogation.
Why did Cirk Baufort want to kill Major John Gordo?
The brutal interrogation was illegal and inhumane. According to Bill, some shocking pictures were leaked from the civilian prison. When the military’s brutality came to light, Gordo vanished. All the people in the photographs, including Bill and Cirk’s father, were prosecuted. For the same reason, Bill was sentenced to 10 years in military prison, U.S.D.B., while his superior, John Gordo, moved on happily and started his own consultancy company. As per the flaw in the system, once Gordo became a private contractor, he couldn’t be prosecuted for crimes, not on American soil.
Bill had a conscience, and thus he was able to safeguard his sanity, but Cirk’s father, Roger Baufort, lost his mind. After Roger was dishonorably discharged, he got addicted to Oxycodone and physically abused his wife and son, Cirk. Later he shot himself.
Cirk blamed Gordo for the physical abuse inflicted by his father. He couldn’t entertain the thought that many soldiers and their families faced humiliation while Gordo was still walking around freely giving lectures. Cirk was burning with a vengeance, and he wanted to kill Gordo for his sins.
Why did Bill request Cirk to travel with him?
Bill had similar thoughts of vengeance when he was in prison. But in the back of his mind, he knew that he was equally responsible for his inhumane acts. For example, during one of the flashbacks, falling prey to his sadistic nature, Bill humiliated a prisoner and clicked a picture with him. Bill believed at that moment that “he had the right stuff,” and neither Gordo nor the government commanded him to click images of his act. Like a man of conscience, he held himself responsible.
Bill explained his behaviour by comparing it to the poker term “tilt.” There is something similar in interrogation called “Forced Drift.” It happens with the interrogator who applies more and more force to the prisoner with fewer results. The interrogator becomes intoxicated, and in frustration, he tilts. He acts brutally and repents later. And Bill believed that all the men at Abu Ghraib tilted a little, including him and Cirk’s father.
Bill preached the same to Cirk and to control his youthful rage, he invited Cirk to travel with him to the casinos throughout the states. Bill especially requests La Linda to get him a backer to create a nest egg and help Cirk. He even embarked on a W.S.O.P. tour to pay off Cirk’s financial debts so that he gets a chance to start over again, resume his education and start a life.
‘The Card Counter’ Ending Explained
During the W.S.O.P. (World Series of Poker) tour, Bill made his intention clear to Cirk and persuaded him to give up his vengeance. However, when all the persuasive skills failed to change Cirk’s mind, Bill detained Cirk in his room. He threatened Cirk to stop the pursuit and proposed paying off all past and future financial debts so that Cirk could live an easy, carefree life.
Bill had earlier contacted Cirk’s mother, who lived in Fall River, Oregon. He requested Cirk to make things right with her and clear up her debts. After Cirk left to meet his mother, Bill prepared for the final table at Panama City. However, during the dinner break, Bill received a text from Cirk that established that Cirk didn’t go to Oregon. Instead, he traveled to Rockville, Virginia, and reached John Gordo’s house to finish his vengeance.
The revelations robbed Bill of his peace and left the game without calling in. At his motel room, through a news report, Bill discovered that an unidentified suspect armed with a pellet gun fired at Gordo but missed the shot. Gordo returned fire and killed the suspect. Bill was sure of the suspect’s identity and knew that Gordo killed Cirk.
To take revenge, Bill visited Gordo and reminded him of his acts at Abu Ghraib. In a traumatic enactment of interrogation violence (a brawl), Bill killed Gordo.
For his crime, Bill ended up in military prison again.
“I never imagined myself as someone suited to a life of incarceration.”
However, in the end, La Linda paid a visit to Bill in prison. The lovers, separated by thick glass, symbolically embraced each other.
Note: For some reason, Bill wrapped the furniture in his motel rooms with white sheets. While no concrete explanation was given for Bill’s odd habits or behavior, it could be theorized that he probably suffered from “Contamination O.C.D.” Probably, it could be a reason why Bill admired the prison regime for its clean environment.
Congruent Storyline of ‘The Card Counter’ & Taxi Driver
In Paul Schrader’s universe, William “Bill” Tillich and Travis Bickle were ex-military soldiers who lived low-profile lives. But while Travis suffered from P.T.S.D., Bill had a more sane mind.
Both the characters faced the cruelty of warfare and procured incurable mental wounds that they carried within them. While Travis faced an existential crisis after the war, Bill’s prison time helped him redeem his sanity. They had different sets of beliefs, but their pursuits shared an uncanny resemblance. Like Bill wanted to save Cirk, Travis fantasized about protecting Iris from child prostitution. Both Bill and Travis acted as saviors to give better future opportunities to the new generation and protect them from the pit of despair.
In Taxi Driver, Travis successfully saves Iris from her pimps. He is declared a heroic vigilante, while in The Card Counter, Bill fails to save Cirk from committing a grave sin. The pursuit of vengeance took Cirk’s life, and thus, to give him closure, Cirk finished his act. He killed Gordo with his own hand brutally. Both the characters were pushed to violence to save the young. Still, The Card Counter followed a much more realistic approach after the climax. Bill wasn’t labeled a hero but was sent to prison, and he knew he deserved it. It was a sane thing to do, a sensible thing because he crossed the moral line that he preached and believed in.
Paul Schrader’s return to the story may be an attempt to fix the character and the climax. He tries to give it a more realistic, sensible, and practical end so that no future generation will hero-worship vigilantes and learn to make guns or weapons from the internet and end up slaughtering their nemesis. It’s a more Gandhian approach to film, but it still lacks Scorsese’s touch.
The Card Counter is crafty, artistic, and mature, but it fails to stimulate emotions.
The Card Counter is a 2021 crime drama film written and directed by Paul Schrader. It stars Oscar Isaac in the lead role.