By James Slaymaker.
The final act of retribution may not have any longstanding effect on the military-industrial complex, but Tell has, at least, committed himself to one, concrete action which he knows to be just.”
In the opening sequence of The Addiction (1995), Abel Ferrara’s deeply chilling existential horror film which draws upon the tropes of vampire fiction as a means to explore collective guilt in late 20th century America, philosophy student Kathleen (Lili Taylor) attends a history lecture dealing with war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. As the professor displays for the class photographs of the shocking violence inflicted upon civilians during the Mỹ Lai massacre (burning houses, screaming children corpses piled on top of one another in a mass grave) he tells his students that “the administration brought to trial the men responsible, and found them guilty.” Soothing the nerves of those disturbed by the images – which Ferrara’s camera lingers on for an extended period, rendering the horrors of the recent past as palpable to his own audience as to the on-screen students – the professor closes his speech with the reassurance that “justice, though blind, was served.” Kathleen, however, is dissatisfied with this assessment of the incident. As she exits the classroom, she muses to a friend: “It was the whole country; they were all guilty. How can you single out one man?” Kathleen’s objections to the easy conclusions drawn by the processor are well-founded. In reality, only 26 soldiers involved in the massacre were charged, and only one of them was convicted with a criminal offence: Lieutenant William Calley Jr., who was initially sentenced to life in prison but, after launching a successful appeal with the United States Court of Military Appeals, only served 3 years and 4 months under house arrest. Throughout the remainder of Ferrara’s narrative, the cumulative weight of unresolved historical trauma bears down upon Kathleen, warping her mentally and physically, as she struggles to come to terms with the legacies of injustice, bloodshed, and imperialist domination upon which her homeland was built. And compounding Kathleen’s torment are the myriad of comforting lies and self-serving excuses that those in power employ as a dubious way to cleanse themselves of responsibility.
The Card Counter, the latest film by Paul Schrader, similarly tackles the issue of the lingering wounds borne of the abominations committed by Western civilization. While Ferrara’s heroine is a civilian who considered herself an innocent until violently confronted with documentary evidence of the genocides inflicted by the U.S. state under the guise of protecting the ‘freedom’ and ‘security’ of its civilians, Schrader’s protagonist has a more direct connection to military brutality. William ‘Tell’ Tellich (Oscar Isaac) is a veteran of the Iraq war, and one of the men who subjected captive suspects to physical torture, mental abuse, and sexual humiliation at Abu Ghraib prison. While most of the other soldiers who took part in the cruelty suffered no consequences, Tell was one of the few who were present in the extensive disseminated photographs which lead to widespread outrage. In an attempt to diffuse this anger, the military felt the need to shame and convict a small number of servicemen, and so Tell received an 8-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Since his release, Tell has lived off-the-grid to avoid once again being made the subject of public ire: he pays only in cash, uses a fake name, gambles for small sums of money in nondescript casinos, and lives out of interchangeable motel rooms. Although Schrader never portrays Tell as a man who was unfairly persecuted, the film makes it clear that the singling out of him as a symbol of national disgrace was a calculated strategy through which the state denied their own for the unspeakable atrocities carried out in their command – and that, by so aggressively projecting the blame onto Tell as an individual, the wider civilian population was deflecting its own feelings of culpability over the heinous actions inflicted throughout the so-called ‘War on Terror’ by the nation as a whole.
Tell, of course, bears resemblance to any number of isolated, self-martyring Schrader protagonists; however, unlike earlier incarnations…. [he] truly does not long for redemption or transcendence.”
Tell does not believe that he is innocent of wrongdoing, nor that he has been unfairly treated – on the contrary, what torments him is what he perceives to be the relative leniency of his punishment. Incarcerated in Leavenworth prison, Tell discovered that he become accustomed to life behind bars rather easily. He taught himself how to count cards, read books on a variety of topics, and generally enrich his mind. The most excruciating part of his punishment was being forced to live with the knowledge of his own capacity to commit evil acts, atrocities which far outweighed the severity of his punishment. Whilst in prison, Tell picked fights with other inmates and then allowed himself to be beaten to a pulp – a habit which added an element of physical agony to a sentence which he felt did not match the severity of his sins. After his release, Tell carried on the self-flagellation by condemning himself to a life of asceticism. He abstains from the pleasures of the flesh, covers the décor of his motel rooms with white sheets, and does not allow for the establishment of friendships. He drifts through forgotten pockets of middle America, devoted to his habits and rituals with the intensity of a monk. Six days a week, eight to twelve hours a day, he reveals at one point, he wiles away on blackjack and roulette games – always betting and winning modestly – before retiring to his dingy room to languish in his feelings of self-hatred and hopelessness. It’s not that Tell is angry at being made the fall guy for the communal sins committed at Abu Ghraib, it’s that he feels despair at the ease with which the rest of the country has been able to ignore these sins, to move on as if the persecution of a few selected individuals is enough to expunge America of its imperialist violence. Tell has, therefore, taken upon itself to bear the weight of the entire nation’s sins through his self-imposed suffering. Tell, of course, bears resemblance to any number of isolated, self-martyring Schrader protagonists; however, unlike earlier incarnations such as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) and Frank Pierce (Nicholas Cage), Tell truly does not long for redemption or transcendence. Indeed, so deeply rooted are his feelings of revulsion over the sadistic acts which he participated in that he views the very possibility of his own redemption as a further indictment of a system which routinely enables the guilty to evade justice. “There has is a weight a man can accrue”, Tell writes in his journal, “the weight created by his past actions. It is a weight which can never be removed”. This ‘weight’ which Tell describes does not only apply to his own past, it extends to all of America’s wrongdoings, and the existential despair which infuses the film – and is embodied by Tell – is rooted in the sense that the state will never properly address the severity of its crimes, which is an essential element to changing the political arena for the better.
Tell’s carefully maintained routine is disrupted by the introduction of two outside elements. The first is Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of an officer who served alongside Tell in Abu Ghraib and whose all-consuming shame drove him to take his own life. Since this tragic incident, Cirk has directed his anger at Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), a retired military contractor who has managed to launder his public reputation and maintain a clear conscience despite being the one who oversaw the torture regime at Abu Ghraib and trained his father (as well as Tell) in the art of – as he euphemistically phrases it – “enhanced interrogation”. After recognizing Tell as one of Gordo’s ‘fall guys’ outside a conference hall in which Gordo is speaking, Cirk attempts to involve Tell in a revenge plan which he believes will allow them both to let go of past resentments; the second is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a gambling agent who represents a collection of wealthy investors interested in backing highly skilled players in championship poker games. These two narrative strands converge. Tell feels sympathy for Cirk’s anger and frustration, but wants to prevent him from pursuing his misconceived path of vengeance, so he takes up La Linda’s offer – but only until he raises enough money to clear Cirk’s substantial debts and enable him to enrol in college. Tell recognizes that Cirk has his heart in the right place and his assessment of the immorality of the Iraq War is well-founded – Cirk’s proclamation that “The apples weren’t bad. The whole barrel they came from was bad” aligns with Tell’s critique of the U.S. military. But the defeatist Tell has long given up any hope that he can change the system, and sees Cirk’s desire to murder Gordo as a pointless endeavour which would only result in the destruction of the young man’s own life. Tell instead takes Cirk under his wing, bringing him on a tour of the casino circuit, teaching him gambling techniques, and telling him details about the barbarity he witnessed during his military service.
The paternal relationship which Tell builds with Cirk and the romance he pursues with La Linda represent a deviation from his chosen path of self-denial and isolation. Forging out a physical and emotional connection with a desired other inspires within Tell a sense of pleasure and fulfilment he feels he does not deserve, and La Linda’s repeated attempts to offer Tell salvation only heightens his feelings of disgrace, rather than quelling them. When La Linda promises Tell, during a first date at the illuminated Missouri Botanical Garden, that he should feel comfortable telling her about everything he has done in his past, even if he’s afraid that doing so may repel her, because nobody should be defined by their previous mistakes, it offers him no comfort.
When Tell says to Cirk, at the mid-point of the narrative, ‘nothing, nothing can justify what we did’, he truly means it. It is ultimately this belief that motivates Tell, and so the tentative personal connections he makes are bound to become underdone by his self-destructive drive. The relationships he forges may offer him a brief respite from his overwhelming trauma, but he knows that he is a man who does not deserve to be forgiven. The film’s only moment of true joy occurs during a lovemaking scene between Tell and La Linda after they have both confessed their mutual attraction, but Tell’s voice-over provides a crucial distance between the ecstasy depicted and the sense of hopelessness that he is unable to shake: “The feeling of being forgiven by another and forgiving oneself are so much alike.” What attracts Tell to La Linda is not so much her own traits and values, but her own capacity for making him feel as though he is not a monster. Tell finds the illusion of this possibility for redemption irresistible, even if he knows, on a deeper level, that it is an illusion that is impossible to sustain.
Tell is incapable for forgiving himself for the role he played in Abu Ghraib, and the this lingering remorse manifests as a desire for flagellation which underpins every choice he makes. Interlaced throughout the narrative are flashbacks to Tell’s experiences in the chamber. In a striking departure from the muted, detached aesthetic which characterises the film’s depiction of the present, the Abu Ghraib sequences are sensorially overwhelming. Schrader captures these abuses with an extreme wide-angle lens, and primarily in lengthy tracking shots which veer through the serpentine hallways of the space: inmates hang naked with sandbags over their heads; are made to cower on the ground as they are threatened with hammers; are terrorised with attack dogs; and are smeared with faeces. The framing of the space lends the walls of the prison appear uncanny, as though they are simultaneously enclosing in on the observer and stretching off into unlimited off-screen space. The slow, unnervingly even drift of the camera contrasts with the chaos it is observing. The very same heavy metal music used within the chambers by the military to prevent detainees from sleeping and to cause physiological disorientation, is blasted throughout these flashbacks at a deafening volume, a formal decision which pointedly unmoors our experience watching a text which is otherwise sparing in its use of non-diegetic sound. The effect is to indicate that these memories are simultaneously distant from Tell and more immediate in his mind than anything else in his immediate presence – the hyper-real quality of the images indicate that the events have been warped by the inherent unreliability of memory, but the raw emotional scars of the atrocities he experienced are more immediate to him than any element of his current existence. And so, instead of setting Cirk on the right track and sustaining his relationship with La Linda, Tell becomes drawn towards the allure of vengeful violence and becomes the one to carry out Cirk’s revenge mission.
Tell may have bristled at the thought of Cirk – a young man with little moral baggage – throwing away any chance of a future on an act of violence, but, as he believes himself to already be beyond the point of help, he ultimately decides that the only course of action which will break himself free from his insular despair is to murder Gordo. Not only will the heinous former superior officer be dispatched of, but this act will also ensure that Tell himself is sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment – and hence wile away the rest of his days in the one place he feels that he belongs. It is notable that the primary antagonist in the narrative is not any rival poker player but the aggressively unrepentant Gordo. After weaselling his way out of suffering any official punishment following the proliferation of the Abu Ghraib photographs, Gordo used his military background to build a successful, ostensibly socially respected career as a security consultant for law enforcement departments. While Tell has been consumed by guilt since his experiences in the chamber, Gordo has assimilated into a ‘respectable’ civilian life, his conscience untroubled and his memory undisturbed. It stands to reason, then, that when Tell breaks into Gordo’s home, his first ambition is to pressure Gordo into finally confessing his wrongdoing. Gordo’s unwillingness to admit the cataclysmic ramifications of his actions, of course, reflects the reluctance on the part of U.S. governmental officials to acknowledge their role in the perpetration of atrocities across the Middle East. Even when forcefully confronted with his sins and their destructive aftermath, Gordo continues to deflect responsibility. After discovering that one of his former officers committed suicide after becoming debilitated by guilt, Gordo responds, “So I’m to blame? […] We are each responsible for our own actions”. This weak defence registers with grotesque irony, as Gordo is the feature’s most explicit symbol of the displacement of guilt and the evasion of upon which the neo-imperialist project is dependent. It is the fact that fundamentally immoral men endowed with power and riches like Gordo escape consequences that sins like those perpetrated at Abu Ghraib continue to be repeated, and so serious lessons are learned from the injustices of the past. By turning the tables on Gordo and subjecting him to the very methods of torture he inflicted upon countless detainees, Tell is enacting a desire to break through Gordo’s hardened facade and force him to feel the weight of his accrued sins. Tell’s final act of retribution may not have any longstanding effect on the military-industrial complex, but he has, at least, committed himself to one, concrete action which he knows to be just.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.