This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Jack Chungus’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
This cannot be dismissed as just another Man in a Room story from Schrader, it is the Man in a Room story: the culmination of all other Men in Rooms. Taxi Driver uses his story elements to show a miserable and tense descent into hell and decline of humanity. Light Sleeper is a hopeful refraction of Taxi Driver, creating a more somber atmosphere where someone alters the trajectory of their life for the better. Card Counter is a refraction of that refraction back towards hell again, where a character subjected to permanent meaninglessness in a hellish limbo pulls themselves out, gaining humanity once again. This results in Schrader's most ominous, depressing, and hopeful film with so much depth derived from overbearing emptiness.
Guilt and anger are two ends of the same spectrum as answers to our past. We can hold onto our anger and offload accountability to an outside party in futile gestures of revenge, or we can succumb to our own accountability too far, never forgiving ourselves. Both result in a permanent limbo state of meaningless confinement and incarceration devoid of progression.
William Tell is obviously the latter, carrying the enormous debt of his own guilt. He admits to loving the power fantasy of torture, directing his own anger and insecurities towards those with less power with no moral question at the time. There is no redemption for his actions and he knows it, subjecting himself to a permanent confinement within a limbo of his creation: following the casino circuit counting cards, not for enormous profit, but for the bare minimum funds to survive off of. His life only consists of the bleak and stale routine of rotting away for hours in a depressing, muted and liminal casino, or within a motel room stripped bare like a prison cell. He has effectively created a purgatory where he doesn't progress or regress; there is no hope, no escape, no momentum and no meaning, only passing the time surrounded by memories and guilt until he dies because that's all he deserves.
Cirk is the exact opposite, blaming his own familial abuse on Gordo entirely. He believes Gordo is the only person at fault for who his father became and believes revenge will make everything better for him. Putting all the weight of healing entirely on punishing a third party will leave Cirk permanently in his own limbo until he finally gets revenge (which won't even fix anything). Where Tell festered in isolation and guilt, Cirk festered in anger and blame until the temptation to approach Gordo becomes unbearable and Cirk is ultimately killed after trying to exercise a revenge power fantasy.
These characters play their own games of poker with their environment. Their emotional states are the products of previous hands dealt to them in life and they up 'poker faces' to mask what's in their current and past hands. Tell is far more experienced at this and thus creates a far more convincing wall of emotional withdrawal, denying himself of any emotional release. Only another experienced 'poker' player can see through it, such as La Linda who has gone down a similar path already and can identify these walls. Cirk is new at the game, he tries to mask his emotions all the same but is so unconvincing, especially when asked about his mother.
Tell immediately sees through Cirk's poker face and identifies his own former misdirected anger in Cirk and feels he can achieve some semblance of redemption in veering another off the path he's already walked. He takes Cirk through his limbo, showing him what all of these thoughts will amount to. He attempts to rid Cirk of his debts, both the literal financial debt of college and his destroyed relationship with his mother. Tell knows first hand that with these debts cleared, Cirk can have a clean slate to begin a healthier life with nothing holding him back in limbo. However, like a game of blackjack, you don't reach the fifth hand without playing the previous four. Cirk was never going to learn his lesson without first going after Gordo himself, the same way Tell is only at this point after first succumbing to his own power fantasies within the torture facility and learning from that.
Despite feeling guilty for failing Cirk, his fate is also a reminder to Tell that life is a fixed continuation of events and that we are all the products of different decisions and experiences with varying degrees of regretful actions. Nothing we can do can change that and nothing could've stopped us from making those mistakes. The only thing we have control over is where we go next, not necessarily justifying our past or forgetting it, but by making peace with our past and allowing our improved present day selves and decisions to speak for us instead. There was no reason Tell survived the manifestations of his anger and Cirk to die from his, but that is the hand that was dealt regardless and as Tell realises that there is no karma or fate or fairness in how those cards are dealt, he sees his survival as a sign of potential change and not guilt. He's been given the chance to move forward as a new man. Tell finally forgives himself and allows himself to move on. He allows himself to act upon his emotions; finally expressing his feelings for La Linda and finally punishing Gordo for his actions which he dodged accountability for previously. Tell is no longer an empty, meaningless rotting vessel, he's a human being with ideals and emotions and he's going to start acting upon those.
(I take huge issue with the way he discussed his emotions to Cirk as merely 'getting fucking laid'. Even if it's just a poker face to mask his true feelings, it's still deeply disrespectful to her and Schrader went way too far with the idea of emotional walls here. I can't help but be reminded of his gross Facebook posts.)
La Linda is far more secure in her identity, she acts as herself and is open about her own history and emotions. She's the one source of levity in the whole film where everything else constructs somber, depressive and empty atmospheres. She overpowers the ominous score with her laughter and brings smiles to otherwise miserable characters. Her maturity in discussing her past and where that took her is inspiring to Tell. This combined with her positivity in his life makes him fall for her and this bond pulls him from the limbo he's created.
The settings in which characters choose to reside in are extremely important. Tell was a participant in the American war on terror, either blinded by shallow american imperialist ideals or a passive acceptor of them. Now he subjects himself to a another setting fuelled entirely by the same stale American ideals which may have been relevant in the past and would only be perpetuated arbitrarily by other empty American husks chasing American dreams of winning cash. They are passively chasing these ideals out of a muscle memory ('the mind forgets but the body remembers'), with no critical thinking regarding why they're even there to begin with. Shots of casinos pan past empty lights signifying the vague promise of a jackpot, bodies are motionless and hunched over card tables resembling mass graves and the casinos themselves are muted, lacking any individuality or personal flare. People lose time from hours to days in these places without noticing, chasing this wealth. Tell doesn't want the wealth he just wants that loss of time, using this decay of empty american husks in limbo as the setting for his own decay as a fellow American imperialist husk. This is what he once fought to preserve, now he reaps what he sowed.
Where the casinos were a lifeless and stale intermediary between life and hell, the torture facility was the hell; from the colours to the music to the bizarre lens shot with and the intensity of horrific acts within, everything feels disordered, chaotic and terrifying. This setting and what he did within defined Tell's entire emotional arc, even when physically removed from that place he's obviously still there. Every setting he visits after this hell is a different form of prison cell; deliberately bland and empty spaces to pass the time within without allowing anything good. As La Linda breaks through his walls, she offers to take him to the only beautiful location in the entire film. Beautiful light shines on them as the camera slowly sweeps across them and the entire garden of lights. She slowly reaches for his hand and reassures him that she doesn't care what he did in his past. This is a manifestation of her postive effect on him and his newfound desire to pull himself out of limbo is solidified as soon as he sees her light.
It's uncertain whether Linda will stay with Tell after his final sentence, or what Tell will even do in general afterwards. But that's not the point; this film is about pulling yourself forward in the face of an unbearable and fixed past. Whether she leaves him after learning about the details of his actions or not, we know that Tell's new view on morality and consequence will be far healthier and he will accept both the highs and lows of his life, moving forward as a human being not a prisoner.
Since no one will read this far I'm burying an open message here: This is a direct threat on the life of Karsten for his extremely reductive review of this film.