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Worldbuilding Beyond Blockbusters: the Card Counter

Worldbuilding is an ability that has come to the forefront of public awareness. From video games to IP-based blockbusters, critics and fans analyze, rate, and celebrate the skill of building a recognizable reality. We associate it with expensive film franchises and TV shows anchored in science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe come to mind. Big franchises spilling across from the big screen to TV to books expand the limits of a world into a universe. There are more stories to explore, more products to sell.

There is something hyperbolic and self-serving in the term. The truth is that every narrator, in any medium, engages in the art of worldbuilding. The big difference is the baseline of what you have to cover. For example, if your story takes place in contemporary times, in the United States, you can assume your public will bring their experience of life as background information. You do not need to explain social mores and the logistics of daily life. They know what they are. Move the action to a different country or a different time, and the baseline changes. Now, you have to explain more things: the expectations and hang-ups of the characters, how they live, how they work, how they travel from point A to C. 

The truth is that every narrator, in any medium, engages in the art of worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is not just a skill for screenwriters in Marvel's payroll. We can find skillful examples in independent movies, such as the recent art-house hit The Card Counter. Paul Schrader rose to fame as the scriptwriter of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and eventually became an exceptional filmmaker by his own right. In his latest movie, Oscar Issacs plays the role of army veteran Willian Tell. His adoption of a swiss folk hero's name puts into evidence a profound elusiveness. He hides his true self. 

We meet Willian in jail, the nature of his crimes still unknown. He claims to enjoy the regimented ascetic life behind bars and provokes other inmates to fight. He seems to crave punishment, but why? Upon release, he earns his living as an itinerant card player, visiting casinos all over the country and living in roadside motels. A glimpse in one of his temporary rooms shows every piece of furniture covered with white sheets. This quirk is never explained verbally, but the image activates our imagination. 

Shrader spends a lot of time introducing us to the world of professional gambling. Willian explains how to count cards at blackjack and poker.  He is a very talented player.  He could make a killing, but he aims to stay afloat and not call attention to himself. We follow him from one casino to another, but they all look the same. By his own choice, William is more a journeyman than a star. He wants to keep the stakes low. Through him, we get to know this world, how the protagonist sees it and experiences it.

Two supporting characters bring other perspectives, each one a conduit to new information about the world our protagonist inhabits - and built for himself. La Linda (Tiffany Hadish) is a talent wrangler, scouting for high-profile gamblers willing to be financed by unseen millionaires in exchange for a cut of the wins. Will is not interested in big money, but romantic sparks fly between them. Still, something is holding him back. Her offer reveals a higher level of gambling that the protagonist intentionally keeps at bay. But once we are aware of it, it brings new shades of gray to his choices.

Sneaking into a security convention, Will meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), a young man who claims to know him. Both Will and his father were soldiers stationed at an Abu Ghraib-like prison. He tries to recruit Will to perform a vendetta against the speaker, retired mayor Joe Gordo (Willem Dafoe). After a scandal brought along by photos depicting soldiers torturing prisoners, the higher-ups got away free while the grunts faced justice. Now, we know why Will served time. Cirk’s father spiraled down into addiction, domestic violence, and suicide. Gordo, who turned the soldiers into torturers, went into a golden retirement as security advisor.

A jarring flashback puts us at the prison on occupied territory. Gordo and Will walk around, while background action shows horrifying violence, familiar to anyone who glanced at the infamous pictures. The single-take scene is distorted with lenses to suggest this is corrupted and abnormal. It feels like touring the circles of hell. Will's past is chaos, but his present is order.

The character of Cirk is an overt plot device, motivating the protagonist into action. Will takes Cirk under his wing, trying to deviate him from his wrong-headed mission of vengeance. He even goes against his nature, taking on La Linda’s offer to make money and bribe Cirk into the straight path. Will offers to pay for his debts and college tuition. Caring about someone else brings his guard down, and he even pursues La Linda. But in Shrader’s view, once you become an agent of violence, you can’t really escape its effects.

Marginal characters help us go beyond the main plot. Check out the recurrent apparitions of Mr. America (Alexander Babara). He is an Armenian immigrant who takes on an obnoxious nationalistic persona. We can see he is Will’s nemesis in the high-stakes gambling tournament. There is a scalding irony in the fact that the character traffics in vapid nationalism, in opposition to a veteran soldier who derailed his life by performing crimes in the name of his country.

There is a brief moment that could be dismissed as an afterthought. Will and La Linda are talking at a bar. A female croupier seated nearby sobs uncontrollably. She brusquely waves off their sympathy. We never see her again or discover what provoked her meltdown. Yet, this hint is enough to suggest more stories are taking place in the background of the main plot. We may concentrate on Will and three more characters in his orbit, but they inhabit a fictional world that contains multitudes. Very much like our own.

Location selection, set design and cinematography provide information on the world of The Card Counter. We accompany the characters to several hotels and casinos, but they all kind of look the same. Flat lightning conveys the banality of the setting. The glitzy glamour of Ocean’s 11 is anathema to Will. It is just another day at the office for him. A glimpse of Gordo’s house reveals it is generic in its own way, but the hint of domesticity is a mark of privilege. He got away scot-free, and he gets to make a home for himself. But when we get there, the furniture is covered with white sheets., very much like the hotel room. A life of violence will catch up with you in the end.

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