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How Paul Schrader deals with a national stain in 'The Card Counter'

Michael Ordoña, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

In a sense, Paul Schrader is alone in his room, making movies about a man alone in his room, both immersed in their professions and drawn alongside larger issues.

"I've gone back to it four or five times, indirectly other times," says the writer of "Taxi Driver" and writer-director of "American Gigolo," "Light Sleeper," "First Reformed" and last year's "The Card Counter" — all specimens of this cinematic category he embraces as his own.

"I stumbled on it with 'Taxi Driver.' It was transplanted from fiction; it really wasn't a movie genre: the existential hero. It was out of European, 20th century fiction — Dostoevksy, Sartre, Camus. I discovered it was something I was good at; it was natural to me and other people weren't doing it."

He delightedly quotes a review of the new film that says he's working in a genre of his own making: "It doesn't get more complimentary than that.

"When you have idiosyncratic gifts, you think it's the easiest thing in the world. Then you see people trying to copy 'Taxi Driver' and you think, 'Well, it's a lot harder than I thought,'" he says with a laugh. "You look at Preston Sturges and say, 'That's easy,' and you try to do it and you say, 'That's hard.'"

"The Card Counter" finds that lone man played by Oscar Isaac; his rooms are hotel accommodations made more faceless by his own idiosyncrasies (such as wrapping the furniture in blank cloth). The former Marine now called William Tell has, since his release from prison, become a quiet, methodical poker player mechanically executing gambits, controlling his environment. Eventually relationships develop (with characters played by Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan) that shake him from his doldrums and force him to confront a past he long ago deemed unforgivable.

 

"What could he have done that he can't forgive himself for?" Schrader ponders. "Even serial killers and Ponzi-scheme guys have justifications. Then I thought of Abu Ghraib — to besmirch the image of your nation. You'll die and everyone else will die, and that stain will remain. There's nothing you can do about it; it will always be a stain on your country and you put it there."

In "The Card Counter," there is a showboating, star-spangled gambler, Mr. U.S.A., who's from Ukraine. The protagonist is called Bill, and there's a hefty one coming due, and of course a Tell is any 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 kind of background thrum like the Zen of repeating a task until the task disappears.

"He's waiting," says the writer-director. "He doesn't have the courage to die or the will to live. He's in a limbo of unforgiveness. Society has forgiven him, but he hasn't."

The writer paraphrases a bit of Bill's emotionless narration:

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