Some filmmakers write a hit movie and spend the ensuing years trying to escape its shadow. Paul Schrader never flinched. Forty-five years after his “Taxi Driver” script put him on the map, the writer-director has developed a body of work loaded with alienated anti-heroes compelled to violent and reckless extremes for the sake of a higher calling.
That includes “The Card Counter,” in which Oscar Isaac plays guilt-stricken Abu Ghraib vet William Tell, a man with a gambling addiction compelled to help the revenge-seeking son (Tye Sheridan) of a former colleague. Taking justice into his own hands, Isaac’s William Tell slithers through the Vegas strip in search of questionable salvation, not unlike a certain Vietnam vet named Travis Bickle did from the driver’s seat. As if to cement the comparisons, “The Card Counter” features Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, marking the first time the two men share a credit since 1999’s “Bringing Out the Dead.”
For Schrader, “Taxi Driver” comparisons are inevitable in all his work. “My tendency is to look for interesting occupational metaphors,” Schrader said in a recent interview. “‘Taxi Driver’ hit the bull’s eye of the zeitgeist and it doesn’t die. There’s no way I could’ve planned for that, but it does inform the stories I tell.”
At 75, Schrader continues to churn out movies much like his compatriot Scorsese, albeit on a much smaller scale. “The Card Counter” is the latest illustration of the secularized Christian dogma percolating through his work. “Our society doesn’t like to take responsibility for anything,” he said. “But I come from a culture where you’re responsible for everything. You come into the world soaked with guilt and you just get guiltier.” In his own prickly fashion, Schrader makes movies steeped in empathy for lost souls in search of redemption despite the daunting odds. “We’re all certainly capable of forgiveness,” he said, and chuckled. “Anyone who says otherwise is wrong.”
The “Taxi Driver” dilemma looms large in nearly all of Schrader’s work, from the dazzling high-stakes activism of “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” all the way through Ethan Hawke’s eco-conscious priest in “First Reformed.” While the latter, Oscar-nominated effort brought Schrader new fans, “The Card Counter” is an even more precise distillation of his aesthetic — a moody, philosophical drama about the vanity of the personal crusade.
Schrader, who has labeled his homegrown character studies as “man in the room” dramas, embraces the parallels as usual. “There is this kind of myth that the taxi driver was this friendly, joking kind of guy who was a character actor in movies,” he said. “But the reality is that it’s a very lonely job, and you’re trapped in a box for 60 hours a week.” He saw the same logic with gambling, a wayward profession generally depicted in the movies in the context of escapist romps, rather than the somber rituals that afflict most players. “I thought about the essence of playing cards every day, or sitting in front of a slot machine. It’s kind of zombie-like,” Schrader said. “You see commercials of people in casinos laughing. But it’s a pretty glum place. Today with slots you don’t even have to pull the lever. You just sit there and let the numbers roll.”
The gambling figure led Schrader to the bigger picture of his character’s conundrum. “I was wondering why someone would choose to live in that sort of purgatory,” he said. “He doesn’t want to be alive, but he can’t really be dead, either. What could cause that? It can’t be a simple crime, murder, or a family dispute. It has to be something unforgivable. And that was Abu Ghraib.”
After the fallout of that debacle, William did time in a military prison, and reenters society before the movie begins. That was a world the filmmaker wanted to understand in clearer terms. Though Schrader has received blowback for his controversial Facebook posts in the past, in this case, the platform was an asset: He used it to track down soldiers who had done time in the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, the only military prison in the U.S., to better understand the initial claustrophobic world that Tell endures, as well as the conflict between the justice he’s received and what he deserves. “This man has been punished by his government, set free, and paid his due, but he doesn’t feel that,” Schrader said. “What does he do then? How does he fill his time? That’s how it all began.”
Schrader himself toyed with gambling when he lived in Los Angeles early in his career, but soon gave it up. “I very quickly realized I was only interested in gambling if it was really dangerous and I didn’t want to expose myself to that kind of danger,” he said. Years later, though, the experience helped inform his story. “There is this whole fantasy of gambling movies from ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ to ‘California Split,’” Schrader said. “But poker is all about waiting. People will play 10 to 12 hours a day and two to three times a day, a hand will happen where two players both have chips. Now you’ve got a face-off. But that doesn’t happen very often. Most guys who are there are running the numbers, the probability.”
He envisioned “The Card Counter” as a repudiation of the traditional poker movie, which builds to the giddy release of a final tournament. When that moment arrives in the movie, Schrader takes the movie in a bleak, shocking new direction. “It’s not really a poker movie — that’s a red herring,” he said.
William is immersed in his casino journey when he encounters Cirk (Sheridan), the crazy-eyed son of another Abu Ghraib soldier who committed suicide. Cirk blames the soldiers’ former commander (Willem Dafoe), and hopes to loop William into the plan. Instead, the older man decides to take Cirk under his wing to talk him out of the act, which doesn’t prove so easy. In the process, the gambler forms a curious bond with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a gambling agent and pimp whose icy, relentless drive to make the most out of the poker circuit brings William some measure of companionship on his wayward journey.
It should come as no surprise that the “Girls Trip” breakout is nearly unrecognizable in the role of the calculated La Linda, which is also a distinctly Schraderish touch: From his work with Richard Pryor in 1978’s “Blue Collar” all the way through Cedric the Entertainer’s supporting turn in “First Reformed,” Schrader has made a habit of seeking out comedic actors willing to play against type. That’s partly opportunistic on his part. “They’re eager to do it because they want to expand their palette, so you can get them for a price,” Schrader said, chuckling again. “That’s necessary, given the kind of films I make.” But that’s not all: “They will always find a way to be interesting, even when they’re not getting a laugh.”
Which is not to say that the process comes easily to them. Haddish recently told the New York Times that Schrader had to coach her out of speaking in a comedic sing-song. The filmmaker put it in blunter terms. “On the first reading of the script we had, frankly, she wasn’t very good,” he said. “I told her to go back and read every single line without emotion. Then I said, ‘You’re not going to do that in front of the camera, but you can’t hit every line either. So let’s pick five or six lines you can hit where you get a smile or reaction.’ Quickly she got that it was a different rhythm.”
As for Isaac, whose disquieting turn suggests a maniac lingering just beneath the surface, Schrader once again turned to metaphor. “I told him to imagine himself on a rocky coast in the ocean,” Schrader said. “Waves are going to come up and get you all day every day. They’re going to try to batter you. Let them. The waves will go away. You’ll still be there. Don’t compete. In the end, the rocks will win. You have to learn to trust that the way these things are put together has more power than the individual movement.”
William’s routine includes an odd ritual in which he covers all the furniture in his various Vegas hotel rooms with white paper. While the motivation is never explained, Schrader said it stemmed from an experience with production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti on the set of 1982’s “Cat People,” when Schrader realized the man was doing the same thing. “He said, quite simply, ‘I have to live here surrounded by these ugly hotel furnishings,’” Schrader recalled. The concept inspired the new movie’s most compelling visual motif. “Casinos are very ugly places. There are no exceptions,” Schrader said. “Often you aspire to finding pockets of beauty and there weren’t really any here except the only place he could control, which was his hotel rooms, where he could privatize his visions. I came up with this ritual for him to control those visuals.”
At a certain point, Schrader himself couldn’t control the visuals of “The Card Counter” for more prosaic reasons: After an extra tested positive for COVID-19, the production shut down last March, with five days of shooting left, and couldn’t resume until July. Though Schrader initially took to Facebook to fume at his producers, the pause eventually opened up an opportunity to tweak his vision. “I edited the film and put in placeholders for the five or six scenes of consequence that I hadn’t shot,” he said. “I didn’t have a fully finished film but I could screen it for people. Normally you only get that privilege if you have a big-budget film and you’re allowed reshoots.” The early audience included Scorsese, who provided a crucial note. “I asked Marty, ‘What am I missing?’ He said to me that the relationship with Tiffany and Oscar was too thin. So I rewrote those scenes.”
Schrader asked Scorsese to take on the executive producer credit as a favor. “I said, ‘Marty, wouldn’t it be nice to share a card again? I thought it would help sell the film but it would also be a cool thing to do after all these years,’” Schrader said. “Then a couple of weeks later his agent called wanting to work out a deal. What deal? I asked Marty and he said yes. That’s the deal!” Now, the pair are trying to collaborate on a new long-form TV series based on the Bible, though the timing has been delayed by production on Scorsese’s upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
In the meantime, Schrader has been mulling over the way “Taxi Driver” not only continues to inform his storytelling but the world at large. “Hardly a week goes by that I don’t notice or hear some reference to it,” he said. “But I don’t know how you’d tell such a story today. A number of writers have tried and I don’t think they’ve succeeded because it has to come out of a certain place and time. We have plenty of these incels around, but they’re not as original or revealing as they were 45 years ago when that character came on the scene. I wouldn’t know how to write about it.”
Instead, his next project is a love triangle called “Master Gardener,” which he hopes to shoot in Louisiana before the end of the year. He has several other potential scripts ready to go after that. And while he has expressed trepidation about the future of cinema in the past, he’s not convinced that audiences have given up on it yet. He recalled a conversation he had with Cedric the Entertainer when “First Reformed” made the rounds. “He said off-handedly to me, ‘You know, I didn’t realize there were so many people who liked serious movies,’” Schrader said, and chuckled once more. “Well, yeah, there are.”
“The Card Counter” premieres next week at the Venice Film Festival. Focus Features releases on September 10, 2021.