In a sense, Paul Schrader is alone in his room, making films about a man alone in his room, both immersed in their professions and dealing with larger issues.
“I’ve been back there four or five times, indirectly other times,” says the ‘Taxi Driver’ author and writer-director of ‘American Gigolo’, ‘Light Sleeper’, ‘First Reformed’ and ‘ The Card Counter” – all specimens of this cinematic category that he considers his own.
“I stumbled upon it with ‘Taxi Driver’. It was a fictional transplant; it really wasn’t a movie genre; the existential hero. It was 20th century European fiction – Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus . I found it was something I was good at; it was natural for me and other people didn’t do it.”
He happily quotes a review of the new film that says it’s working in a genre he created himself: “It doesn’t get more complimentary than that.
“When you have special gifts, you think it’s the easiest thing in the world. Then you see people trying to copy ‘Taxi Driver’ and you think, ‘Well, that’s a lot harder than I didn’t think so'”, he laughs. . “You look at Preston Sturges and say, ‘It’s easy’ and you try to do it and you say, ‘It’s hard’.”
“The Card Counter” finds this lonely man played by Oscar Isaac; its rooms are hotel rooms made more anonymous by its own idiosyncrasies (like wrapping furniture in virgin fabric). The former Marine, now called Guillaume Tell, has become since his release from prison a discreet, methodical poker player, mechanically executing gambits, controlling his environment. Eventually, relationships develop (with characters played by Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan) that pull him out of his slump and force him to confront a past he has long deemed unforgivable.
“What the hell did he do that he couldn’t forgive himself?” Schrader thinks. “Even serial killers and Ponzi schemes have justifications. Then I thought of Abu Ghraib – to tarnish the image of your nation. You will die and everyone will die, and this stain will remain. You will not can’t do anything about it; it will always be a stain on your country and you put it there.”
In “The Card Counter”, there is a showboating, a star player, Mr. USA, who comes from Ukraine. The protagonist is Bill, and there’s a big one coming, and of course a Tell is every poker player’s Achilles’ heel. The emptiness of routine is a defining characteristic of this world: Bill’s rote existence is his flatly played profession, a sort of Zen-like background noise of repeating a task until the task disappears.
“He’s waiting,” says the writer-director. “He has neither the courage to die nor the will to live. He is in a limbo of unforgiveness. Society has forgiven him, but he has not.”
The author somewhat paraphrases Bill’s emotionless narration:
“Until then, you’re just passing the time.'”
Schrader says: “The line I wrote relatively unknowingly in ‘Taxi Driver’ is the one that comes back. Travis [Bickle, of that film] writes in his diary: “Each day is like the day before. Hours pass, years pass. And then there is a change. I wrote that in 1972 and I still write that.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t Abu Ghraib’s opprobrium that served as the seed for the film.
“I was watching poker players on TV and thinking about people who sit for hours upon hours in casinos. money, you don’t have to pull the lever. You just sit there and life flows past you. It must be someone who thinks it’s a sham of life itself.
“People think it started with Abu Ghraib. No, it started with the metaphor of the kind of person who counts cards, plays poker 10, 12 hours a day, six, seven days a week. When you can find something original about this profession – “
And the author is back in the guts of his genre:
“Everyone knew what a taxi driver was – he was the protagonist’s best friend who made jokes and sat in the front seat while the romantic couple sat in the back. When I I looked, I saw the black heart of existential terror I saw a child locked in a yellow box, floating in the sewer, completely alone and angry.
“When you find a new path in a profession, it makes the viewer think about it in a different way. That’s not how I thought I was playing professional cards; that’s not how I thought I was. taxi driver. That’s not how I thought I was a drug dealer [in ‘Light Sleeper’]. I didn’t know that being a drug dealer was basically boring,” he laughs.
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