Over the course of his long and illustrious career, though peppered with at least a handful of controversial works, Paul Schrader has continually revisited – be it as a director or only in screenwriting capacities – the theme of a tormented man on a mission. From Blue Collar to Hardcore and even recently to First Reformed, and even his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ and Raging Bull) many of his movies fit together thematically.
What is more, all these films taken together and arranged chronologically show a clear trajectory of Schrader’s maturation as an artist and a storyteller. His latest effort, The Card Counter does not deviate and shows exactly that his edge didn’t necessarily blunt over the years and – rusted and chipped as it may be in places – it continues to be a dangerous weapon capable of inflicting catastrophic damage on the psyche of unsuspecting viewers and perhaps even taking stock of the collective American conscience. Therefore, it is perhaps a good idea to examine it in the context of Schrader’s earliest scripts, with which this movie has quite a few things in common, namely Taxi Driver.
Contrary to what the title might suggest, The Card Counter isn’t quite preoccupied with the thrilling art of card-counting and fleecing casinos. However, it’s hard to accuse Schrader of false advertising anyway. After all, Taxi Driver wasn’t exactly a procedural about the vagaries of driving people around at night. A lot has been said about First Reformed being a spiritual successor of the Scorsese-directed seminal classic, especially together with Bringing Out the Dead forming a thematic trilogy of sorts, but come to think of it, The Card Counter fits much better as a symmetrical companion piece to the 1976 masterpiece that Schrader wrote, and Scorsese directed.
In it we find William Tell (Oscar Isaac), a former soldier who learned the art of card-counting in prison. As we find out later, he had been tried and convicted together with other lower-ranking officers in the aftermath of the infamous Abu Ghraib torture scandal. William isn’t a big-time hustler though. He’s not interested in swindling casinos out of big bucks. He bets modestly and wins modestly. He stays under the radar and keeps his ego in check, even though his skills would likely allow him to become a millionaire overnight. Playing cards isn’t a career for him but a means to pass the time, or better yet, to repent for the sins of his past. He is the enlightened incarnation of Travis Bickle who also came from a war traumatized, scarred, and full of pent-up rage he eventually unleashed upon the world.
Now, we can only infer from brief flashbacks what William is going through. What we see, however, is that in contrast to Bickle who caved under the pressure exerted by his demons, he is keeping the lid on. He is denying himself even the simplest earthly pleasures. He wraps the furniture in his hotel rooms in white cloth. He deprives himself of comfort even at the most basic levels. He doesn’t socialize. He plays cards and then, later at night, he writes a diary by candlelight.
William doesn’t spend a single second of his life glued to the TV like Travis Bickle did. He doesn’t roam the streets at night to work himself up by witnessing what he despises. That is until he meets his Iris, a young man Cirk (played by Tye Sheridan) whose failure to launch into adulthood is indirectly linked to William’s own life. Cirk’s life has been traumatized because his father – who like William was an Abu Ghraib scapegoat sentenced to prison to shield despicable people in positions of higher authority – emerged a broken man from incarceration, turned his son’s life into a living hell and took his own life. Again, just like Travis Bickle, William takes Cirk under his wing and – perhaps as part of his penance – pledges to help him turn his life around.
Could it be posited that a similar dynamic existed between Travis Bickle and Iris? To an extent. One could read into the narrative a bit and maybe suggest that Travis felt pity for her combined with an impotent rage at the fact that the war he had gone to fight – The Vietnam War sold to many young men as an opportunity to defend freedom and democracy – did not really help to protect people like Iris from abusers like her pimp, Sport. Naturally, this is a far-fetched projection because there are more easily accessible reasons why Travis did what he did and can be explained using the simple fact that Iris was a child victim of abuse and that should be more than enough to motivate any character to put them on a warpath.
It’s quite fascinating to ponder the subtle differences between these two narratives that are at their core extremely symmetrical. You can clearly see how much more mature and restrained Schrader is in constructing the character of William who in contrast to Bickle is very difficult to define using simple adjectives. He isn’t a lone wolf waiting for a trigger to unleash biblical carnage, nor is he overtly deranged. He remains haunted by the demons of his past, but he effectively keeps them in a chokehold. And even when he finally sets off on his own warpath to confront the man he and Cirk’s father had gone to prison to protect, played by Willem Dafoe who is this film’s rendition of Harvey Keitel’s Sport from Taxi Driver, Schrader opts out of the symmetry with the 1976 film and shows the viewer how far he has come as a storyteller in the intervening years.
When William decides to confront the demons of his past he had struggled to contain through ascetic discipline, The Card Counter has every opportunity to retrace Travis Bickle’s steps and re-enact the cathartic slaughter he inflicted on Sport and his minions. Nevertheless, the film zigs instead of zagging, which again showcases that Schrader has evolved. He is no longer hot-blooded, eager to underscore what he wants to say and more than willing to beat the viewer over the head with imagery that most assuredly would help the film make a visceral impact. He has developed better ways of conveying the film’s central message that remain unambiguous despite being shrouded in symbolism and nuance.
Although there is an element of ambiguity baked into Taxi Driver which leaves questions about whether some elements of the film’s final act and its epilogue are nothing but figments of Travis Bickle’s imagination, the resolution to his arc is quite straightforward. The Card Counter refuses to commit wholeheartedly to anything resembling a crystalline resolution of the film’s central conflict. Instead of a violent orgy of righteous retribution, Schrader prods William’s character towards a wholly different kind of catharsis – a mature one. Sure, there is an exhilarating confrontation at the end of the film, but Schrader seems disinterested in overtness. He plays his cards close to his chest (sic!) and orchestrates the film’s climactic finale by borrowing a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, as he methodically withdraws the camera from the proceedings leaving the viewer with muffled sounds of what might be possibly happening behind closed doors. Mature Schrader knows that our imagination is way better at unsettling us than any image ever could. Our own brains know best which levers to pull to upset us.
What is more, he wants William not to share the fate of Travis Bickle. He is not to be seen as a heroic martyr or a plain-clothes superhero. William releases himself from his years-long penance knowing perfectly well he would pay the price. But in the end – as the film’s final shot that plays over the end credits as well – he retrieves his ability to feel. William is the humanized Travis Bickle. An evolved Travis Bickle. He is a monster and a product of his traumas but he’s a monster who may have read Jordan Peterson’s book and disciplined himself enough to stay above water.
This discrepancy between Travis Bickle and William Tell emphasizes the journey Paul Schrader has been on for the last forty-to-fifty years. He’s been evolving, maturing and learning to leverage his own idols instead of merely referencing them. Thus, a keen observer will find The Card Counter to be an ode to Robert Bresson, which Schrader has been enamoured with all his life. However, the film itself isn’t shackled to its inspirations. It is a subtle synthesis that – while revisiting Schrader’s own longstanding thematic obsessions – is remarkably fresh, intellectually titillating and supremely emotive. It shows you can’t after all walk into the same river twice, but it is so not because the river has changed; it is so because the person wading through it has grown. Hence, I am happy to count The Card Counter among Paul Schrader’s many masterpieces and perhaps one that comes the closest to surpassing the storytelling genius of his early works.