In The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac’s character, Bill, has an odd habit of covering his motel room furniture with sheets–bizarre but with good reason.
In Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter, protagonist William Tell has a strange habit of covering hotel furniture with sheets, but why? After recently premiering at the Venice International Film Fest, the film hit theaters this weekend. It currently boasts an 86% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, with reviews praising Isaac’s gripping performance as a man haunted by his past.
That past is dark, indeed: As is slowly revealed in the movie through jarring and discordant flashbacks in The Card Counter, Oscar Isaac’s Bill was a young U.S. Army soldier stationed at the infamous Abu Ghraib. Initially a wide-eyed rookie who had moral qualms about what was going on in the prison, Bill was soon joining in with the worst of them, committing atrocities against the prisoners that were well-documented in real life. After spending time in a military prison for his crimes, Bill now travels the country as a gambler, living a transient and monkish existence of playing poker and sleeping in cheap motel rooms.
His ascetic existence is exacerbated by a strange ritual he conducts every time he gets to a new motel, which itself is heightened by the intense solemnity of Oscar Isaac’s performance. When entering the room, he calmly works his way around every piece of furniture, save for the bed, and wraps them in sheets, securing them tightly. It’s a bizarre habit and one that isn’t explicitly explained in the film. However, the movie gives enough context about who Bill is to gather some possible reasons for it. The first and most simple is that he’s hiding his fingerprints. Bill carries deep shame about who he is and what he did in his past, preferring no one get to know him to the point of near-paranoia. It may be a reflexive and irrational act, but it makes sense that Bill wouldn’t want to leave any trace of himself or his identity behind.
There are other reasons, too. The film opens with Bill’s monologue, and he explains that he never expected to find himself in prison, and he was surprised to find that he gained a certain peace from it. The certainty, the strict routine, the starkness, the relative isolation, the blandness was soothing to him. It’s understandable. The Card Counter trailer hints at dark times in his past but doesn’t reveal the true horror of it. The movie doesn’t pull any punches with the Abu Ghraib flashbacks, filming it with a distorted fish-eye Go Pro effect and taking pains to show the constantly flashing lights, the blaring, pounding heavy metal music that screamed through the prison and didn’t allow the prisoners–or guards–to sleep. It was a time that scarred Bill as badly as the prisoners he dealt with, and thus, his current life is all about trying to maintain that neutral blankness, not just his routine but in his surroundings. Casinos are also notoriously loud and chaotic, so Bill maintains his peace of mind by making his motel room as blank a canvas as possible.
Oscar Isaac’s upcoming Metal Gear Solid, based on the best-selling video games, will portray a more typical side of the military experience. But The Card Counter explores an aspect rarely explored in Hollywood: not portraying the soldier as a hero, but how war makes monsters of all. As with much of Schrader’s work, The Card Counter presents an interesting and difficult story about a man with a number of sins upon his soul. The stark contrast of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks and the present day, and between the casinos and Bill’s motel rooms are meant to represent the hard line he’s drawn between himself and his past: That was the Bill of the past, and the past is behind him. However, like his sheet-wrapped furniture reveals, that past isn’t as far from him mind in The Card Counter as he likes to believe.
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