For fifteen years Paul Schrader walked deep into the cinematic wilderness making films that few critics approved of and almost no one went to see. Of course, that’s not how Schrader’s career as a director began.
Schrader was already an established screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Obsession, The Yakuza, and Rolling Thunder) before helming his first film, 1978’s blistering (and far too unseen) auto workers union drama, Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto.
Over the next seven years, Schrader directed four more exceptional films: Hardcore, American Gigolo (his biggest hit), Cat People, and Mishima. He also made the time to write a little boxing movie for Martin Scorsese called Raging Bull.
His next three films as a director (Light of Day, Patty Hearst, and the underrated The Comfort of Strangers) received mixed critical response and found no audience. Schrader’s most impactful work over that stretch was his bold screenplay for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.
Schrader would be hit (Light Sleeper, Affliction, Auto Focus) and miss (Forever Mine and Touch) as a director from 1992 to 2002. After the critical success of Auto Focus, his final film of that era, Schrader’s long walk into the woods began. Dominion, his 2005 prequel to The Exorcist, was a disaster. The films that followed were even worse, with the nadir of his career, The Canyons (based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, starring Lindsey Lohan, and—no kidding—a pornstar named James Deen), all but putting him out to pasture for good.
The once legendary screenwriter, and fine director in his own right, had become irrelevant. Which is why 2017’s First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke as an extremely troubled priest, was such a shock. Not only did Schrader direct Hawke to the best performance of his career, he produced an entirely original vision that was nothing less than a revelation (no pun intended).
First Reformed is 100% prime Schrader, which is to say it is about guilt, doubt, and the desecration of the male ego. The film was a stunning return to form for Schrader and resulted in the first Oscar nomination (an astounding fact) of his career for his remarkable screenplay.
After the critical acclaim of First Reformed, one had to wonder if he could do it again, or if this was just a late career uptick amid a long, painful downturn.
While Schrader’s new film, The Card Counter doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of First Reformed, it definitely falls within the upper-tier of Schrader’s oeuvre as a director.
The Card Counter is a taut mood piece about an ex-con who grinds out a life on the road, hitting casino after casino, squatting in $56 hotel rooms (which he whites out with sheets that are wrapped around and tied to every piece of furniture inside), and seemingly going nowhere slowly. Schrader’s cardsharp is played by the great Oscar Isaac in a controlled and minimalistic performance. Isaac is so tight-lipped in the film, I’m not sure you ever see his teeth. Words seem to sneak from his mouth like a thief navigating an open window.
In almost any other film with this sort of set up, you would anticipate Isaac’s character (who wryly goes by William Tell) to end up at a card table taking his shot at a big score. But peculiar things happen on the way to the World Series of Poker championship.
Tell becomes close to a new benefactor, La Linda (a perfectly modulated performance by Tiffany Haddish), who agrees to stake him for bigger games. Their courtship borders on playful (mostly from her side), and while there is a romantic element here, the relationship remains—like the film itself—muted.
Along the way, Tell meets a troubled young man named Cirk (“with a C”) who knows Tell’s troubled military past. At this point, if you had anticipated The Card Counter to turn into a revenge flick set at low simmer with a plot turn involving a malevolent mercenary named John Gordo (played by the always fabulous Willem Dafoe) who led “enhanced interrogations” at Abu Ghraib, well, pin a rose on you.
Cirk (Tye Sheridan) has reasons to want Gordo dead (and arguably, so does Tell), but Tell wants the young man to leave the past behind. Somewhat mysteriously, Tell takes the young man under his wing and convinces him to join him on the road. It’s not like his new traveling partner is all that sympathetic or even decent company, but Tell’s military connection to Cirk’s father creates a desire in Tell to keep the kid safe.
As Tell reaches the cusp of “the big game,” tragedy ensues, leading to an intentional anti-climax where two men, in an almost gentlemanly fashion, agree to go into an adjacent room and do extreme violence to each other—all of which takes place off camera. It’s a bold choice Schrader makes here. The film deliberately avoids showing you the brutality that almost any other film would indulge in when the two men go off to duel.
The final scene of the film is likely to put a smile on your face if you are a Schrader fan. For the third time in his career, he ends one of his movies with a man and a woman looking at each other through a pane of glass. “Faraway, so close” to crib a phrase from Wim Wenders. It takes a lot of stones to homage yourself even once, but a second time? That takes boulders. And Schrader gets away with it.
The Card Counter is so tightly composed, so masterful in tone, with one of the finest actors of this generation at its center (seriously, how has Oscar Isaac never received an Oscar nomination?), that even when copying himself, Schrader’s indulgence feels earned.
That’s one neat trick, and so is The Card Counter.