Dying of the Light. Dark. The Card Counter. Aside from all being written and directed by Paul Schrader, what do these films have in common? In this episode we delve into this utterly unofficial trilogy relating to torture and the war on terror, but featuring Schrader’s trademark emotionally troubled characters. We recount the unique production history around Dying of the Light and Dark, before examining The Card Counter as an extension of the same themes in those two films.
I imagine many of you are already familiar with the work of Paul Schrader. A UCLA Film Studies graduate, he was initially a film critic and scholar before becoming a screenwriter, writing an early draft of Rolling Thunder – which was reworked without his knowledge or permission, and he openly disapproved of the finished movie. This would become something of a motif in his career. He also wrote an early version of Close Encounters, but Spielberg didn’t like it, finding it ‘guilt ridden’ and he switched to a lighter, happier story.
Schrader was raised and educated as a Calvinist, in a form of Protestant Christianity that views us all as fallen sinners, essentially irredeemable, finite beings that cannot understand the infinite that is God, and which emphasises God and the word of the Bible over, say, the worship of Jesus and Mary in Catholicism, there’s no confession or absolution, merely life as meek sinner under God.
As such, it’s unsurprising that Schrader’s films often have an element of emotional or existential crisis, typically of a single man around whom the story rotates. Who then destroys himself, either literally or figuratively. This is certainly the case with the script that shot him to fame – Taxi Driver, which came out in 1976. He also wrote parts of Raging Bull, and continued to work with Martin Scorcese on The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 and Bringing Out the Dead in 1999, about a New York ambulance driver played by Nicholas Cage.
As I’ve said before, my favourite 70s Scorcese movie is Mean Streets, I’ve never been a huge fan of Raging Bull, and though I do quite like Taxi Driver I find it a little over the top in places, which undermines the credibility of the insane world you’re inhabiting while watching it. Certainly, the Schrader-Scorcese movies are all intense, provocative and somewhat challenging to watch, but of their collaborations my favourite is Bringing Out the Dead.
Schrader is also a director, with Taxi Driver helping launch that side of his career despite him not directing it. He’s mostly made lower-budget thrillers and dramas, notably the Patty Hearst film about her transition from wealthy heiress to full blown member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Some idiots like to trash it because it doesn’t say that ‘she was actually the victim of a CIA mind control experiment’, because those people can’t understand that something much more interesting happened in that story. I also like Affliction, a small town neo-noir film not unlike Fargo, but with a far more troubled central character.
He has also contributed to some ‘top ten best movies of all time’ lists, including Vertigo – a movie I don’t especially rate but if you’ve seen it you’ll understand the thread running from that through much of Schrader’s own work. He does include Citizen Kane and The Conformist, two outstanding films, and his updated list includes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, perhaps the best silent film I’ve watched. I am a little surprised no one has remade Citizen Kane or Metropolis, the name recognition alone would make them an easy sell. You could get Christopher Nolan to direct, though he’d give Kane a dead wife because all of his protagonists have dead wives, and wouldn’t be satisfied with the puzzle being the meaning of Kane’s last words before he died, and would make him into an astronaut who makes nuclear time bombs for the military, or something. And it would be lauded as superior to the original Citizen Kane by Nolan fans who’ve never seen the original Citizen Kane.
I digress. One of the more interesting episodes in Paul’s career came on Exorcist: Dominion – a prequel to the original The Exorcist. As anyone who has watched the original and bothered to understand that it’s about a lot more than a girl’s head spinning around and her vomiting gunge all over the clergy will realise why they picked Schrader in the first place. The original story is about a mother in existential crisis – her daughter is sick, all the doctors and scientists and clever people she turns to cannot solve it, and in desperation she makes a leap of faith and calls in a pair of Catholic priests to try to help her child.
Sidenote: in a modern context the last person you’d ever call to help a child would be a Catholic priest, but this was in the 1970s, when people pretended not to know.
Anyhow, Schrader was hired to direct but when he turned in his film to Warner Bros they absolutely hated it, because he’d made a psychological drama rather than a spooky horror movie that just happened to have the name ‘Exorcist’ on it. So they hired Renny Harlin, director of Cliffhanger, to make a more conventional version, and released that as Exorcist: The Beginning in 2004. Having thrown away $30 million making Schrader’s version, they spent another $50 million making a new version. The following year, the Schrader film was released on a limited run in only 110 cinemas. The first film made some money, but still posted a significant loss overall, while the Schrader Exorcist made almost nothing, and both films were criticised by audiences.
This was the one and only time that he was given a significant budget to play with as a director, and the whole episode turned into a farce. This damaged his career and from 2007 to 2012 he struggled to find funding to make further movies. This reduced him to making Canyons in 2013, starring Lindsay Lohan and a porn star. Or Lindsay Lohan and another porn star. It was crowdfunded, made for about $250,000 and was a critical and commercial bomb.
Since then, he has managed to rebuild his career and his ‘unofficial trilogy’ of First Reformed, The Card Counter and Master Gardner in recent years have all been well received, with the script for First Reformed earning him an Oscar nomination.
However, I’m choosing to delineate a different unofficial trilogy of Paul Schrader films for us to look at today, based on the theme of torture and the war on terror. Perhaps unsurprisingly, herein lies another story of him falling out with financial backers and this resulting in two different versions of the same movie.
Dying of the Light (2014) Production History
I am talking about Dying of the Light, a CIA-sponsored psychological thriller from 2014 starring Nicholas Cage, which was written and directed by Paul Schrader. I’ve mentioned this one multiple times, or at least played the clip of Cage giving a speech to a bunch of fresh-faced CIA recruits in a replay of the scene from The Recruit, where Al Pacino does the same thing. And both do so with a massive official CIA logo right behind them, so you know you’re watching something the Agency signed off. Indeed, Dying of the Light features the CIA logo prominently, especially in the first act, and we get a custom-shot aerial of Langley, with the camera rising over the trees like in Patriot Games.
There are also some internals of offices that look like CIA offices, so evidently the production design people got a look inside headquarters, and a scene with a big CIA seal on the marble floor. This wasn’t shot in the lobby of the old, original headquarters building, it appears to be something they put together at another location. The same thing happened on the third season of Designated Survivor a year or two later – it’s the right seal, with the shield and the eagle and the compass rose, but on a different floor.
I wanted to talk about this not because it’s a good film, or even an especially important film, but because it has a wild production history. As I say, Schrader wrote the script and directed it, but it was financed and produced by TinRes Entertainment and Red Granite Pictures. It was initially announced with Harrison Ford as the lead, Nicholas Refn would direct, and Chaning Tatum would play the main supporting role.
That deal came apart, so Refn became executive producer (and part director, it seems), Cage took the lead and Anton Yelchin took the supporting part. The production budget came from the Bahamas-based TinRes Entertainment, whose website says they specialise in loaning money to productions in anticipation of them getting it back through tax credits.
After filming in Kenya, Australia, Romania, Virginia and elsewhere had wrapped, Red Granite Pictures came on board, supposedly specialising in sales even though the distribution rights had already been pre-sold.
It was at this point that the film was taken away from Schrader and finished without his input. This is, in many ways, the nightmare scenario for a film maker. You write the damn thing, which is hard enough. You find someone to give you the money to make it, which is often the hardest bit. You travel around the world filming the damn thing, having to put up with Nicholas Cage for months. And then some brushed aluminium cyberprick in a suit that looks more expensive than it is takes it all from you, tells you to fuck off, and fucks the whole thing up.
Which is exactly what happened – he turned in an initial cut which resulted in ‘extensive notes’ from TinRes, Red Granite and the distributor. There were some arguments – the finance people said they thought there was a better version of the film, more like the one Schrader had pitched to them with his script. Schrader argued back, he turned in a second cut that barely differed from the first, and so they removed his right to the final cut. They also fired the editor he’d been working with, so Schrader walked away and was ‘never asked back’.
This meant the final editing, the musical score and the rest of post-production was done by a bunch of people who’d basically never made an actual film before, even digitally altering the colour-specific cinematography to make it look more normal and boring. In September 2014, having seen the final cut just prior to post-production finishing, Schrader took to facebook and posted ‘We lost the battle. ‘Dying of the Light,’ a film I wrote and directed, was taken away from me, reedited, scored and mixed without my input.’ He included photos of himself, producer Nic Refn, Nic Cage and Anton Yelchin wearing t-shirts depicting the non-disparagement clauses in their contracts. This clause prevented them from slagging off the movie or anyone involved in making it, but the four let it be known on the QT how much they hated the finished version of Dying of the Light.
And they weren’t alone – it has a 4.5/10 score on IMDB, an 11% critics’ score on RottenTomatoes and a 15% audience score. Honestly, I think the Tomatometer is being a little harsh – having rewatched it recently I felt it was almost as good as the Baywatch movie starring The Rock, which I felt was a solid 3/10, so Dying of the Light is at least a 2/10, maybe even a 2.5.
What happened next is quite extraordinary. Using workprints – very rough cuts of the film done early in the editing process – Schrader re-edited and made and released his own version, called Dark, which he made available via P2P downloading and is now is on archive.org. Despite being quite rough in places, especially in the audio mix, it earned much more positive reviews, though obviously has made no money because it has never been commercially released.
Meanwhile, what of Red Granite, the company who entered the process just in time to fuck up the film? Well, they got into a bit of controversy. Red Granite were founded in 2010 by a guy named Joey McFarland, who doesn’t seem to have done anything prior to that point, and Riza Aziz, who we’ll come back to in a moment.
In 2014 they were sued by the producers of Dumb and Dumber, accusing McFarland and Aziz of racketeering for forcing them off the production of the sequel. The lawsuit was settled that summer, with the names of the plaintiffs added to the sequel as executive producers and them issuing an apology for naming Aziz and McFarland personally, rather than simply suing the company they founded, owned and ran.
Bear in mind, this was all going on at the exact same time as the struggle over post-production and editing on Dying of the Light.
Then, Red Granite got into a wholly different kind of mess – they received a bunch of subpoenas from the FBI in relation to their financing of The Wolf of Wall Street. At that point the company had only one, relatively low-budget movie under their belts but somehow managed to drum up over $100 million to help Scorcese pay DiCaprio to shout his way to an Oscar nomination. Also, kind of ironic to have the FBI poking into this, since they wrote to Scorcese offering their help in making the film.
Anyhow, it seems the money came from 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund set up by the Malaysian government to help economic development in Malaysia. However, it was a massive scam – a businessman named Jho Low convinced the Malaysian Prime Minister to set up this $10 billion fund, which quickly ran into massive financial trouble, running up billions of debts. That’s because Low was siphoning off around $4.5 billion into his personal accounts and spending it on… whatever rich Chinese-Malaysian businessmen spend other people’s money on.
It was alleged, and widely suspected and reported, that the money Red Granite put into Wolf of Wall Street came from this fund, and was part of the corrupt dealings going on, either involving Low or otherwise. Red Granite always denied this, but in 2018 they paid $60 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the US government, alleging that their movies were partly financed with money from the Malaysian government fund, and Riza Aziz is none other than the son in law of Najib Razak, the Prime Minister who set up the fund. The fund that was set up the year before a previously unknown American movie producer and the son in law of the Malaysian Prime Minister founded their new production and movie financing company and were named by Variety among their ‘top 10 producers to watch’.
Since shutting down Red Granite, Aziz has been arrested in connection to all this financial chicanery and is under investigation by Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission. McFarland has set up a new company, imaginatively titled McFarland Entertainment, and in 2019 he agreed to surrender to the US government a bunch of luxury goods he’d bought with money from the 1MDB fund.
Last year he continued to court controversy, after showing up at the premiere of one of his company’s new films, Emancipation, set in Louisiana after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He gave a red carpet interview where he showed off a picture of Gordon, a famous self-emancipated slave widely known for the photographs of the intense scarring on his back from all the whippings from slave-owning sadistic pigfuckers. It seems McFarland wanted the shock value of the picture, but this exploitative display revealed him to be just as sick as those selfsame pigfuckers.
Dying of the Light vs Paul Schrader’s Dark
All of which adds up to Dying of the Light being accidentally sponsored by the Malaysian government (as was Wolf of Wall Street) but intentionally sponsored by the CIA. And so was Dark, the Schradercut, or Schraderroughcut of the same movie.
As I say, Dying of the Light is not a good movie, and if you know what you’re looking at you can see how it was a psychological thriller about a CIA officer with dementia going on one last mission that the suits tried to turn into a conventional spy film, like a low budget Mission: Impossible rip off. I am not surprised that the stars and film makers disavowed it.
Having watched the two cuts – Dark and Dying of the Light – back to back there are some obvious differences, and some less obvious ones. For one thing, in the Schradercut Nic Cage’s character is more obstinate and overtly racist, and you get much more of the impression that he somehow represents the CIA as a whole. They also play up the onset of his dementia in Dark, whereas in Dying of the Light it’s played more like a torture victim with PTSD who also just so happens to have dementia.
The story in both is largely the same – Nic Cage is a Marine turned CIA officer at the end of his career, who 22 years ago was tortured by a terrorist leader named Mohammed Banir. We see this in flashbacks in both movies, and during the torture Banir rips out a piece of Cage’s ear, with a pair of pliers. So throughout the present day sequences, Cage has a fairly obviously prosthetic stuck on the outside of his real ear, and there’s a piece of that missing. I have no idea whether this is supposed to be symbolic, but with one ear obviously larger than the other, which only accentuates the bizarre nature of the scar, it is off putting and unrealistic.
In the present, Nic is stuck behind a desk, and has a meeting with the director asking him if he can get back in the field, where he belongs. He is haunted by the past, not just the torture but the belief that Benir is still alive, even though the Agency officially thinks he died in an airstrike. We see him giving a speech to the classroom of new recruits at Camp Peary, one of the CIA’s training facilities, though the speeches are a little different across the two cuts.
In Dark this speech is longer, more eccentric and unhinged, and he takes pot shots at the Hollywood types and the news media talking heads, who apparently don’t have a clue about the Agency. At the same time, Dark opens with images of brain scans, from an MRI machine, and a voice over explaining how dementia changes the physical nature of the brain, and that our protagonist doesn’t know this yet, and then it goes almost direct into the speech. Whereas Dying of the Light opens with the torture flashback, before going into a more moderate version of the speech.
You see how in the mainstream version it’s about his emotional state, we sympathise with him for suffering torture, so we take the more vanilla speech as passionate, but serious, and from a man who knows what he’s talking about. Whereas in Dark, we’re invited to question whether his mind is even functioning properly before we hear a word he has to say, and the speech itself is bordering on a crazy rant. One is a film about a guy with PTSD getting revenge, the other is about a guy whose reality is coming apart at the seams. Dying of the Light is much more pro-CIA in this sense, we understand Nic Cage’s sense of mission, of not wanting to leave a wrong unresolved. Whereas in Dark he’s a deranged, angry racist on a mission that ultimately proves pointless, and it isn’t clear how much of this is his deteriorating mind and how much is the CIA officer within him.
I say this because in one of the few articles that gets into the story of exactly what happened during the editing of Dying of the Light, one of the money men said that they were trying to make it more like the original version of the script that Schrader pitched to them. But comparing the two cuts of the movie, it’s clear that we’re not just talking differences in narrative and stylistic components, but in the whole concept and feel of the film.
Which poses an interesting question – did Schrader deliberately write a softer, more money-friendly and CIA-friendly version of his story so he could get the funding and access he wanted? And then just made the film he was trying to make, and hence this turned into a fight in post-production? Was he fooling not just the financiers but also the Agency, giving them a story of a fairly sympathetic CIA character one on last mission to put right what once went wrong? Whereas in reality he wanted to depict the CIA as demented, vengeful bigots who’ve lost their grip on reality?
In both edits, Cage goes to see a private doctor under an assumed name, the same alias he was using back in the day when he was being tortured – this is the name he gives to Banir in between being smacked about. The doctor tells him about the dementia, how it’s basically fatal and uncurable and there’s an inevitable decline that can be quicker or slower but it’s basically horrible for everyone no matter what. Which is all true, dementia is a terrible thing for people to go through, and this is one of very few films to depict it.
However, when he gets back to Langley there’s a surprise – the director and some white coat from medical services know about the private doctor and the dementia, and are going to retire him because he’s considered unreliable, especially with his noisy outbursts (one of the symptoms of the disease). Again, in both versions Cage responds with a speech castigating the CIA as fuck ups, mentioning Iran-Contra, Aldrich Ames, 9/11, WMD, Afghanistan, Iraq, Benghazi. While in Dark this is edited in a fairly bonkers way, with flashcuts and more echoes and weird music, the accusation is the same in both films.
I guess in Dying of the Light the CIA tolerated this because it’s in the context of a man who is not well, finding out that his bosses know he isn’t well and are forcing him to retire on a medical, so he’s letting loose a few things. Whereas in Dark it comes across as a guy who’s saying enough is enough, he’s had it with these bureaucrats and incompetents, we’re more on his side, rather than seeing this as the reaction of a man who has just found out his career is over.
Meanwhile, in Romania (because tax incentives) a Nigerian throws himself off a bridge rather than be caught by police. This reveals that he is part of an operation where a Romanian doctor is providing drugs to a patient suffering from a very specific disease – the disease that Banir has. When Cage’s protege at the CIA, played by Anton Yelchin, finds out about this he goes and tells Cage that this is a sign that Banir is still alive. The two of them hatch a plan to go to Romania and try to track down where the drugs are going, so they can find Banir and kill him.
In Dying of the Light this is played as a fairly straightforward ‘kill the bad guy because it’s the right thing to do’ story, whereas in Dark Schrader draws parallels between Cage and Banir. We get another full screen interlude with voice over, this time telling us about Banir’s blood disorder. This is two sick men, tied together by an experience over 20 years prior, each a reflection of the other. While we spend more time with Nic Cage and Anton Yelchin than we do with Banir, this is more balanced in Dark, and you get more of a sense of this being a story of two men who are more alike than they realise, rather than of one man’s mission to take down the bad guy.
The endings of the two films are quite, quite different. The second act plays out basically the same – they go to Romania, meet a local cop who is an old flame of Nic’s, find the doctor and infiltrate the whole deal, which leads them to Kenya. Cage disguises himself as the doctor, basically by wearing glasses and a false beard, and he and Anton go off to Mombasa.
Where the films differ enormously is in what happens next. In Dying of the Light Cage goes to see Banir, with the intention of killing him, and pulls off his disguise and tells him who he really is. Banir responds by going on lengthy soliloquy, talking about losing his faith and how the true meaning of political Islam isn’t extremism, it is social justice. Cage has a series of flashbacks, and comes to some kind of realisation, then just gets up and leaves.
The following day, at the hotel, Cage and Anton are having a walk around the swimming pool, reflecting on his decision not to kill the guy, when a couple of armed gunmen appear out of nowhere and start shooting at them and the other white tourists. Anton is hit – not fatally – and Cage kills the two guys before rushing back to Banir’s place and kills him. For some reason it just suddenly turns into a schlocky action movie. Then, that evening, while driving away from Banir’s home, Cage starts having mental spasms and just drives into oncoming traffic. We get a brief ending where we hear his speech about people joining the CIA because they have values, and we see his grave at Arlington National Cemetery and some other ‘tie up the story’ shots.
In Dark, the ending is quite different. The shoot out, the killing of Banir and Cage’s suicide or death by misadventure don’t happen. Instead, when he comes face to face with his nemesis, and we start getting this stuff about loss of faith and the true meaning of Islam, Cage undergoes not just flashbacks to his torture but also sensory hallucinations, before he realises the two men are essentially one and the same, before the film becomes just surreal colours and noise, and then ends.
I could go on about the stylistic elements – the music in Dark is much more prominent and more interesting, the sound design and mix is really strange in places, jumping between loud and quiet, often having little echoes of things people said earlier. The use of colouring is curious – all the CIA scenes in Virginia are washed with sepia, or at least most of them are, while Romania is very blue, and Kenya is a reddish-orange, not unlike every Netflix series set in Mexico.
There are also a lot more shots in Dark, the editing is more frantic, some of it looks like it was filmed on a digital handheld, like the Bin Laden videos or the Rodney King tape. Dark is more of a sensory experience – quite a weird sensory experience, but intense and compelling, whereas Dying of the Light is trying desperately to turn an interesting film into a boring one.
The Card Counter
Several years after the debacle over Dying of the Light, Schrader gave us another film set in the torture and war on terror context, with another deeply troubled protagonist haunted by his past. Again: not just a motif of Schrader’s work but perhaps the defining feature of his work.
The Card Counter came out in 2021, and had six or seven production companies behind it. It seems they all chipped in a small amount to make up the budget, thus spreading the risk in case it bombed and couldn’t get a profitable distribution deal. It made about $5 million at the box office, but given that there are only about three characters and most of it takes place in casinos, it cannot have cost much to make. Ultimately, I have no idea if it made any money but since losses on film production are a useful tax break, I’m sure it all worked out.
In the movie Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a professional gambler who taught himself to count cards during an 8-year spell in military prison. He moves from town to town, winning decent but small amounts so as to not piss off the casinos and get himself thrown out. He lives out of motel rooms, always removing the décor and covering the chairs to make it more like a plain prison cell.
The reveal takes its time, but we learn that William was at Abu Ghraib, and was imprisoned for his role in the torture of inmates. His instructor at Abu Ghraib, played by Willem Dafoe, is now hawking next-gen lie detectors and the like, and in some ways is based on the two former Air Force consultants working at the CIA black sites, Mitchell and Jessen. He escaped prosecution and imprisonment, despite being responsible for training people like William to do what they did.
Of these three films, The Card Counter is the best. It’s short and taught, doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, and has a very specific tone that isn’t comforting in any way but which does offer sympathy to its protagonist, despite him being a torturer. Some people have labelled it a movie about what torture does to the person carrying it out, and whether they are in some ways also victims of the program.
I think it stops short of portraying William as a victim, certainly in any simple sense. He is scarred by the experiences, and evidently feels guilt about his actions, but he is finding a way to function in the normal world. A strange way, to be sure, but there are far worse ways to live. Exactly what we’re supposed to feel about him is not clear, but he certainly isn’t Jack Bauer.
Enter Tiffany Haddish. You may remember Tiffany from The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where she plays the CIA officer who recruits Nic Cage. This is entirely coincidental. In The Card Counter, Tiffany plays Linda, who represents a group who back professional gamblers in higher-stakes tournaments. She recruits William and he enters a few tournaments – doing quite well, but not winning.
There is an element of game theory to all of this. For one thing, card counting is a way to increase your odds when gambling, which is a game that divides people into winners and losers, just as game theory does. Then, there’s a recurring secondary character, one of the other gamblers William encounters in the tournaments. He is Ukrainian, but wears the stars and stripes, has a small entourage of side dicks who keep chanting ‘USA’. And he keeps winning.
So, while America keeps winning and the rally round the flag oh beautiful for spacious skies bullshit remains profitable, it’s all underpinned by people like William – who have done heinous things and have the emotional scars. Is William a loser? In the simple tournament sense of everyone who doesn’t win is sort of a loser, yes. In the sense that while this idiot is going round cashing in on pretending to be American while William suffers, yes.
However, torture is a non-zero sum game: there are only losers. No one wins. Not the people being tortured, that’s for fucking sure, but not the people doing the torturing either. It isn’t even a good means of extracting information from people, beyond the ‘cause them pain then use the fear of further pain to elicit answers to questions’ method which isn’t really torture. Your honour.
Thus, we have the appearance of a zero sum game – American capitalism, as represented by the poker tournament – a game where some win and get rich while the others lose and remain poor. But it is a mirage, because it is founded on the non-zero sum game of torture (itself a metaphor for all the horrible things that enable Western market economies to become richer than their competitors).
The other character we get is Cirk, who knows William’s true identity – William Tillich, convicted for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Cirk’s father was also there, was also trained by Willem Dafoe’s character, and was also convicted. However, the hypocrisy of his trainer getting away with it while he had to serve years in prison drove Cirk’s father mad, he became abusive, got addicted to drugs and ended up killing himself. Cirk’s plan is to kidnap Gordo, the trainer, and torture and kill him in revenge. William tries to convince him this is a bad idea, but at no point tells him it is morally wrong.
I find all this quite fascinating, because these are very honest, real emotions that people actually feel but hardly anyone admits it, even in films. People joke about wanting to kill someone, they might say it in a moment where they’ve lost control, lost their temper. But to straightforwardly admit you want to kill someone for revenge, outside of a gangster movie, is quite rare.
Whether any of this is about geopolitics, I can’t say. The fact that Mr USA, the gambler, is actually Ukrainian seems like a choice they made in order to say something about the US-Ukraine relationship but I’m not quite sure what. The fact that William loses to the fake American who is actually Ukrainian also seems to be saying something. Ditto, the fact that one of the qualifying rounds for the World Series of Poker that Linda is staking William in takes place in Panama City (which is in Florida) seems to be another echo – of the US invasion of Panama under the first George Bush.
The story culminates with Cirk revealing to William that he still intends to kill Gordo, so William takes Cirk to his motel room and adopts a sociopathic, interrogation persona, threatening him if he does try to kill Gordo. But he also offers Cirk $150,000 from his poker winning to pay of the family’s debts, forget about Gordo, and go back to college.
It seems Cirk agrees to this, but then William finds out he did go to Gordo’s house, whereupon Gordo killed him. The film climaxes with William going to see Gordo, and there’s a brutal fight off-screen from which William emerges, badly injured and covered in blood, having killed Gordo. William ends the film as he starts it – in prison, but somewhat at peace in the very limited, confined life he has returned to.
The Card Counter isn’t an easy or simple film, but it is an outstanding script that is well acted, and which builds uncomfortably to a wholly unsatisfying conclusion. In many ways, it’s the definitive Paul Schrader movie, because he doesn’t offer happy endings or comforting conclusions, and his central characters are almost always prisoners of their own minds who go through some kind of self-destruction to try to escape that prison.
Some people have criticised the film for humanising a torturer, having us feel sympathy for them. But in the flashbacks to Abu Ghraib there’s no excuse making or blame shifting – William is unable to express his pain and sorrow as what he did, but he evidently feels it. And why shouldn’t we have compassion for someone who feels sorrow at having seriously wronged other people? Should we not be encouraging that?
And herein lies the secret of the film, which is never stated but which rings loud and clear to me. The reason people are disquieted by sympathising with a man who has tortured others is because it means sympathising with that sorrow, guilt, regret. It means admitting that we all had a degree of complicity in this, because it was our supposedly liberal, democratic, rules based order countries who did this. If you go to the government and demand security, this is what they do – they repress, they brutalise, they target innocent people.
And in embracing this truth, without ever having a character state it, the movie is actually quite cathartic, if we are honest enough with ourselves while watching it. If we admit the unspoken truth that the film presents, even if that admission is only internal, we can cleanse ourselves of those feelings of guilt, shame, sorrow.
In sum, none of these films are typical, except in the sense that they are typical Schrader films, they say things and show things that are difficult to accept, but if you accept them then it does help you, in some sense of that word. In particular The Card Counter is cinema as therapy, as all the best cinema is, but also a confrontation with dark truths about how our societies operate. While Dying of the Light is mostly interesting because it’s a butchered film, Dark and The Card Counter are fascinating, if you enjoy discomforting, cathartic movies that won’t leave you alone for days after watching them.