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Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter and Fran Kranz’s Mass are two of this fall’s best films. Though in different settings and styles, they both explore questions of sin, justice, and atonement. Though intense and not appropriate for all audiences, both films provide good fodder for small-group discussion.
In a world where atrocities and evil are constantly filling our feeds, the doctrine of sin is something most people accept without reservation. There are fewer and fewer illusions that “we are basically good.” No, we are obviously deeply messed up. All have fallen short. Sin is pervasive. It’s the next part that modern society struggles with: what to do about sin? We know justice must be done. Someone must pay. But what punishments suffice? For how long must the guilty atone for their wrongdoing? And when no clear culprit is available to punish, who pays then? And if not a God of judgment, who is righteous enough to definitely administer justice and determine who makes atonement, and how? These are the questions these films take up, in different ways.
Schrader’s Most Theological Film?
The Card Counter is a stylish, thought-provoking drama from the Calvin College-educated mind who brought us First Reformed and The Last Temptation of Christ. On the surface, Paul Schrader’s latest is not as directly theological as First Reformed (which I wrote about here). But as I watched and thought about the film, it strikes me as perhaps Schrader’s most interesting engagement with theological themes.
The Card Counter strikes me as perhaps Schrader’s most interesting engagement with theological themes.
The plot follows Bill Tell (Oscar Isaac), a card-counting loner whose every move is seemingly haunted by his past and motivated by guilt. Bill certainly did a bad thing. When he was in the military, under the command of an even more depraved boss, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), he tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Caught in incriminating photos, Tell became the face of the atrocity (much like Lynndie England was in real life) and spent eight years in military prison, even as the guiltier-by-degree Gordo got off scot-free.
Bill makes no excuses for his own part in the sin and he accepts his fate. Even with a back tattoo that says “I trust my life to providence, I trust my soul to grace,” Bill seems to prefer penance and punishment to absolution and grace. Prison is where he feels at home. When he’s released from prison, his card-counting vocation feels aimless and unfulfilling, and he lives in hotel rooms he decorates to be as spare as a prison cell. He finds some purpose when he meets Cirk Baufort (Tye Sheridan), the son of a man who served alongside Tell at Abu Ghrabib and committed suicide in the scandal’s aftermath.
For Bill, young and fatherless Cirk becomes a new outlet for his penance. He decides to put his card-counting skills to work on the poker tournament circuit, hoping to earn enough money to pay Cirk’s debts. Note the significance of Bill’s name, by the way, in a film all about who pays debts. He’s a character obsessed with recompense and atonement—making things right after a wrong has been done. I won’t spoil how this plays out in the film’s final moments, but it involves Bill’s old boss Gordo, in a devilish role played by the same actor (surely not coincidentally) who played Jesus in the Schrader-scripted Last Temptation of Christ.
Understanding Gordo’s character and what Schrader is doing there is a rabbit trail worth pursuing in any theological discussion of the film. As the chief teacher of torture who seems to relish the chaos around him, is Gordo the devil? Or is he, as the letters in his name might evoke, some sort of twisted vision of God? I’m not sure, but it’s interesting to mull the question in light of the film’s final scene and Schrader’s Christian faith.
Reconciliation in a Church Basement
Like The Card Counter, Mass is set in the wake of an atrocity. It’s not military torture in this case, but a high school mass shooting in which a student killed 10 fellow students and then himself.
The entire duration of Mass (a title with a double meaning) takes place in an Episcopal church, as two sets of parents meet for an intense session of grief, anger, and potential forgiveness. The two parents each lost a son in the massacre. One couple’s son was a victim; the other couple’s son was the murderer. They are meeting years after the massacre, yet with plenty of lingering wounds and unresolved grief.
The film, which feels like it could also be a stage play, is almost entirely one long dialogue scene between the four individuals. Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play Jay and Gail, parents of the murdered boy, Evan. Reed Birney and Ann Dowd play Richard and Linda, parents of the killer, Hayden. As the intense meeting plays out, painful questions emerge. For Richard and Linda, the questions are about guilt: Could we have seen this coming? Did we raise a monster? Would the world have been better had we never given birth to him? Can we bring ourselves to attribute the word “evil” to the son we birthed and raised?
For Jay and Gail, the questions are about justice. How can they move through their grief if no one is made to pay for their son’s death? Hayden killing himself is too easy. Perhaps his parents can be made to atone for their son’s sins. In a telling exchange, Jay convulses in anger against the parents of his son’s killer: “Where is your regret? We want to see regret!” Linda replies with gravity, “I regret everything.” But that’s not enough for Jay. “We want to see you punished,” he replies. “We want to see that you hurt.”
Through the proxy of these couples working through the ramifications of Hayden’s sin, Mass explores the messy tension between righteous rage and demands for justice, on one hand, and forgiveness and grace on the other.
Both films reckon with the ramifications of sin. If The Card Counter’s vision of atonement is rather bleak, Mass offers a vision that is somewhat more hopeful. Both films recognize the limits of human justice. In the end, the debts of human sin can never be paid by human justice or virtue. A greater grace is needed—a supernatural grace.
By setting Mass in a church—with the central action taking place with a cross on the wall and a choir singing upstairs—Kranz seems to acknowledge this. The film doesn’t end with a gospel presentation and only rarely engages direct questions of faith, yet it implies the pathway to reconciliation can only happen in the context of God-given grace. In its stunning final moments, we see banners on the wall of the church that say “God with us,” and then Mass concludes with John Fawcett’s classic hymn growing ever louder from the singing choir above: “Blessed Be the Ties That Bind.” It’s a cathartic note that nods to God’s love as the only thing that can bind hearts together that have been torn asunder by sin.
The debts of human sin can never be paid by human justice or virtue. A greater grace is needed—a supernatural grace.
The Card Counter’s finale is similarly focused on the hope of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation—albeit in a more subdued way. The film’s final scene finds Bill reconnecting with a love interest, La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), but between them is the glass partition separating visitor and inmate. Schrader pays a lot of attention to a movie’s final shot, and The Card Counter’s final image zooms in on the glass wall at the center of the frame, with Bill and La Linda’s fingers “touching” and yet separated by glass. Perhaps it’s an image of the barriers (sin, pride, inability to receive grace) that keep human reconciliation from being fully realized. Or maybe it’s a hopeful hint at the power of divine grace to bridge the chasm of sin. I’m not sure.
Both films end in striking if ambiguous ways. They don’t resolve the tensions of justice and atonement in this life, but they find a semblance of cathartic peace on a plane of transcendence. If there’s any hope for us in our prisons of sin, these films suggest, it’s in a love that comes from beyond us and subverts our retributive logic.