On the cards: Paul Schrader’s existential male loners Hollywood veteran Paul Schrader adds another character to his universe of tortured male protagonists to his body of work, this time Oscar Isaac as a war-vet card-counter who drifts from casino to hotel room to casino. The Big Issue Australia spoke to the pioneering writer and director about his new work. By Kai Perrignon Paul Schrader has not been to jail, but he understands what it’s like to feel trapped. In the veteran writerdirector’s new drama The Card Counter, Hollywood leading man Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a former US soldier who now spends his days touring the casino circuit in self-imposed solitude. He allows no friends, no hobbies, no long-term plans. Schrader, who grew up in the Calvinist church in Michigan, can empathise: “John Calvin described the body as the prison house of the soul, and I felt imprisoned as a young man in my church background. “I [eventually] got out, but…part of the escape from prison is that you only escape to somebody else’s prison. You never ever get out, really.” In the film, we learn that Tell served time for crimes committed while he was stationed at the infamous Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib. He still oozes guilt. At every dingy motel, he wraps the furniture in white sheets. This ritual reduces all the rooms to one room, one cell. Meanwhile, travelling between bland casino halls and blank motels, Tell is stuck “in a purgatory of lights and stimuli”. The numbing aesthetics also happen to be what first attracted Schrader to the idea of a gambling movie. He was interested “in the concept of a professional cardplayer, someone who sits there 10 to 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, running numbers. Because that’s all you’re doing, it’d be boring.” So no, this is not a traditional gambling film. Despite the title, there is far more Texas hold ’em than blackjack, and the card games Page 12 are secondary to Tell’s burgeoning relationships with Cirk (Tye Sheridan, Ready Player One), the revenge-obsessed son of a former military colleague, and the vibrant La Linda (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip), who runs a team of card sharks. For almost half a century now, Schrader has been using genre tropes to introduce audiences to the ideas that he really cares about: “What’s beautiful about using genre is that viewers are so hooked that it’s in their viewing DNA. I’m using it to lull you. And then all of a sudden, boom! You jumped from worrying about gambling debts to existential weight.” Existential worry has been a fixture of Schrader’s career since he wrote Taxi Driver (1976), the Martin Scorsese-directed, neo-noir masterpiece about Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an insomniac cabby suffering from PTSD. “People thought they knew what a cab driver was… He was a talky guy; he was the funny guy in movies,” Schrader says. “I looked at him and said, ‘No, this is the black heart of existentialism. This is a young man trapped in a yellow box’… You saw the concept of a cab driver in a new way.” Taxi Driver was the first of what Schrader calls his “man in a room” films, where the antihero – played by Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980) and Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper (1992) – is “the obsessive, unreliable narrator, who keeps telling you the story”. These men are never well-adjusted, and they are always alone. Schrader’s inspiration for this kind of character comes from 19th- and 20th-century literature – “Dostoyevsky in motion,” he calls it – but the variation that Isaac plays in The Card Counter feels modern. Tell’s guilt draws on recent horrible history, and there’s also something modern in how he moulds himself to cope. Schrader describes Tell as a “a computer: ‘I don’t play cards, I count them.’ [As if] somehow, by counting cards, he can control the fact that he’s at the mercy of fate and whim.” Tell tries to act like a “manmachine”, but Isaac has a way of conveying the feelings he’s trying to suppress. There is warm blood beneath his cold exterior, just as The Card Counter is a genuinely romantic film despite its purposeful lack of glamour, its sheet-lined rooms and talk of war crimes. The soundtrack of original ballads performed by Robert Levon Been (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) helps set the mood: “Running blind in and out of sight/you were on my lips/you were paradise,” goes the song playing as the usually monklike Tell holds La Linda’s hand in a lit-up garden. The lyrics express the longing he cannot. Thirty years ago, Schrader commissioned Levon Been’s father, Michael Been, to compose the soundtrack for Light Sleeper using the same approach. “I had the idea that [the music] would begin as inarticulate…like some kind of monster in the carpet; you hear groaning, you can’t see him, but you know he’s going to rise. Gradually, those start to become words and, finally, songs,” he says. In Taxi Driver, Travis famously refers to himself as “God’s lonely man”, a description that could apply to many of Schrader’s characters – most recently, the grieving reverend played by Ethan Hawke in First Reformed (2017). But these men are lovers as much as they are loners, and they each long for better lives. The phrase that rings out from The Card Counter is very different to the one Schrader wrote for Taxi Driver. It comes late in the film. Isaac puts his soulful eyes to work as he implores his companion to choose forgiveness over revenge. “Go see your mother,” he says. Courtesy of The Big Issue Australia / International Network of Street Papers

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