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Big themes in small rooms, a Paul Schrader staple

The writer-director’s latest,“The Card Counter,” continues a career that began in 1974

Writer-director Paul Schrader pictured in 2018.
Writer-director Paul Schrader pictured in 2018.Keith Bedford

Paul Schrader’s first film credit came in 1974. With his brother, Leonard, he wrote “The Yakuza.” Schrader then earned himself a place in film history: writing “Taxi Driver”(1976) and co-writing “Raging Bull” (1980). In between, he made his directorial debut, with “Blue Collar” (1978). That’s a pretty formidable half-dozen years. Yet Schrader didn’t get his first Oscar nomination, for best original screenplay, until “First Reformed” (2017). It’s been that kind of career: enduring, often high profile, usually unpredictable, only intermittently mainstream.

Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver."
Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver." Columbia Pictures/Photofest

Schrader turned 75 in July. His latest feature, “The Card Counter,” opens Sept. 10. He both wrote and directed. Even though he hasn’t had a really commercial film since “Cat People” (1982), Schrader has a knack for attracting excellent actors. “Card Counter” is no exception. It stars Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, and Willem Dafoe.

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Lauren Bacall and Woody Harrelson in "The Walker."
Lauren Bacall and Woody Harrelson in "The Walker."

Another example of this would be the very good and too-little-seen 2007 thriller “The Walker.” Despite a small budget, its cast includes Woody Harrelson, Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, Dafoe, and Schrader’s wife, Mary Beth Hurt.

In “The Card Counter,” Isaac plays a man with a past (of course) who makes a living as a professional gambler, hence the title. The card playing is nothing fancy, for modest stakes at mostly unassuming venues. Isaac’s character doesn’t like calling attention to himself.

Paul Schrader (left) and Oscar Isaac on the set of "The Card Counter."
Paul Schrader (left) and Oscar Isaac on the set of "The Card Counter."Heidi Hartwig

The way he goes about his business is almost an existentialist diagram, albeit one with its own voice-over narration. Life is one big casino, right? Then he encounters Dafoe’s character, who was in his past, and Sheridan’s, whose father was back there, too, and past very much becomes present.

In Don DeLillo’s novel about the Kennedy assassination, “Libra,” an investigator realizes that “his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.” That investigator could be a Schrader surrogate. “Rooms” can take many forms in his films: obsession (the title of a 1976 script for Brian De Palma), damnation, mania, guilt, or even an auto assembly line (“Blue Collar”). Whatever form they take, they’re always small — which is to say confining. Or as someone in “The Card Counter” admits, ”I never imagined myself suited to a life of incarceration.” It could be a Schrader-character motto.

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Richard Pryor in "Blue Collar."
Richard Pryor in "Blue Collar."Universal Pictures/Photofest

His protagonists are usually men, but not always. Think of Nastassja Kinski’s character in “Cat People” or Natasha Richardson’s title character in “Patty Hearst” (1988). The protagonists are almost always trapped. The smart ones know it. The really smart ones don’t care. Resignation, for Schrader’s characters, is simply a blighted version of faith. Doom is the operation of God’s will in the absence of God. Damnation interests Schrader more than salvation does. This is odd, insofar as he takes damnation as a given. Most artists prefer the exception to the rule.

Words like faith, damnation, and salvation are not used lightly here. Schrader had a strict religious upbringing in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, so strict he didn’t see his first movie until he was 17. It was “The Absent-Minded Professor.” Soon enough, he abandoned the belief system he’d been raised in for another: film.

Ethan Hawke in "First Reformed."
Ethan Hawke in "First Reformed."Courtesy of A24

That may sound glib. But the sense of displaced religiosity — or of continuity — is explicit in Schrader’s 1972 book, “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.” Squaring that subject with a film title like “American Gigolo” (1980) may seem improbable, at best. Yet a feeling of immanence, however thwarted, is a near-constant in Schrader’s film. More specifically, the ending of “Gigolo” was inspired by that of Bresson’s “Pickpocket.”

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Even without factoring in this spiritual dimension, films matter a great deal to Schrader. He wrote criticism for the Los Angeles Free Press and was editor of Cinema magazine. His 1972 Film Comment essay “Notes on Film Noir” was a landmark in resuscitating the genre.

As for his own movies, “The Yakuza” reimagined the classic private-eye movie, relocating it to Japan. The “Obsession” script was a filmic fantasia and fugue on Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” “Cat People” remade the Jacques Tourneur horror classic. His next project, “Nine Men From Now,” reworks Budd Boetticher’s western “7 Men From Now” (1956). Like anyone who loves movies, Schrader knows that in the right hands genre is opportunity more than limitation.

Willem Dafoe as Jesus of Nazareth in the 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ," directed by Martin Scorsese.
Willem Dafoe as Jesus of Nazareth in the 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ," directed by Martin Scorsese. Universal Pictures

Martin Scorsese is one of the executive producers of “The Card Counter.” Beside “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” Schrader has written two other scripts for him: “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), putting spirituality front and center, and “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999). The artistic affinity between the two men is obvious: movie love, religiosity, intensity, a fascination with violence.

Yet comparing them highlights Schrader’s limitations. Scorsese, too, has often turned to genre. Along with his many crime pictures, there have been a musical, albeit very dark, “New York, New York” (1977), a comedy, ditto, ”After Hours” (1985), and a children’s movie, though it’s much more than that, ”Hugo” (2011). It’s true that Schrader made a musical, “Light of Day” (1987), although no movie with Joan Jett as its female lead is any sort of standard musical. But it’s pretty much impossible to imagine Schrader making either a comedy or children’s movie. In fairness, some things fit in small rooms and some things don’t.

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Streaming Paul Schrader

Films directed by him are indicated by “d,” films he wrote by “w.”

The Yakuza (w) Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Taxi Driver (w) Available on Amazon Prime, Criterion Channel, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Obsession (w) Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Blue Collar (d, w) Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Raging Bull (w) Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hoopla, Vudu

American Gigolo (d, w) Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube

Cat People (d) Available on Amazon Prime, Vudu

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (d, w) Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Criterion Channel, Kanopy

Light of Day (d, w) Available on Amazon Prime

The Last Temptation of Christ (w) Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Patty Hearst (d) Available on Amazon Prime

Affliction (d, w) Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Bringing Out the Dead (w) Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Kanopy, YouTube

The Walker (d, w) Available on Amazon Prime

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First Reformed (d, w) Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.