Mid-America at the Movies: Paul Schrader's lonely men

Bridget Shileny and Robert Maharry
The Grundy Register

It’s a miracle that Paul Schrader ever wound up in the movie business in the first place. It’s a bigger miracle that he survived the excesses and self-destructive impulses of the New Hollywood era, and it’s even harder to fathom that against all odds, the auteur writer/director is now experiencing something of a career renaissance at the ripe old age of 75.


The western Michigan native (and husband of Marshalltown-born actress Mary Beth Hurt), who, if nothing else, will always be remembered as the guy who wrote “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” for Martin Scorsese, wasn’t allowed to see movies as a child due to his strict Calvinist upbringing, and although he escaped the confines of that world when he went off to New York City and later UCLA for film school, the themes of intense religious guilt, sexual repression and men enduring crippling societal isolation never left his work.


Schrader made a name for himself as one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood in the 1970s with scripts like the Sydney Pollack-directed “The Yakuza,” Brian De Palma’s “Obsession,” the revenge thriller “Rolling Thunder” and the aforementioned Scorsese classics-- inexplicably, neither garnered him a screenplay nod at the Oscars. He turned out to be quite a director, too, with gems like “Blue Collar,” “Hardcore,” “American Gigolo,” “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” “Light Sleeper,” and “Affliction.”


Less than a decade ago, it felt as if Schrader’s storied run might have reached its final act: he’d been pumping out critical and commercial duds like the Exorcist prequel “Dominion,” the Holocaust survivor drama “Adam Resurrected,” the Lindsay Lohan erotic thriller “The Canyons,” and the Nicolas Cage double feature of “Dying of the Light” (a low point for both actor and director, which was allegedly butchered by the studio) and the bizarre but campy dark comedy “Dog Eat Dog.”  The light switch flipped back on, however, with 2018’s “First Reformed,” a modern update of Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” detailing the story of an anguished small-town preacher (Ethan Hawke) coming unglued after the death of his son in Iraq and facing down the looming existential threat of climate change.


Three years later, Schrader returns to familiar territory with “The Card Counter,” another tale of an ascetic, nomadic loner seeking redemption for a seemingly unforgivable sin. Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, an Iraq War veteran who lives with the weight of his past weighing down on him like an albatross around his neck and subsists on playing poker at casinos across the country, and Willem Dafoe, Tiffany Haddish and Tye Sheridan round out the cast.


Due to Bridget’s travel schedule, she wasn’t able to get to a theater this weekend, so she caught “First Reformed” and wrote a retro review on a film she hadn’t seen before. Rob, on the other hand, made the long, lonely trek to Des Moines to see “The Card Counter,” which was one of his most anticipated films of 2021. Strap in for a brooding, philosophical ride.


Before we start, are there any other Paul Schrader, Oscar Isaac and/or gambling movies that our readers absolutely have to see? 


Bridget: I really enjoy Isaac and am looking forward to eventually seeing “The Card Counter.” In the meantime, I might have to rewatch “Ex Machina” (2014). If you’re in the mood for a weird Sci Fi movie, give this one a try. Isaac isn’t really the main character, but plays an eccentric rich guy manipulating artificial intelligence to a tee. 

For gambling movies, though the card-playing is kind of brief, I love Daniel Craig’s first Bond outing, “Casino Royale.” And though it’s silly beyond belief, I still enjoy Mel Gibson’s “Maverick,” which has some fun poker scenes. 


Rob: I feel like I could recommend about 20 different gambling movies (and I already did that with Schrader’s filmography above), but if you have to choose one, you can’t go wrong with Robert Altman’s “California Split” starring Elliott Gould and the recently departed George Segal as average LA guys who strike up a friendship, get in way over their heads and decide to risk it all in Reno. As for Oscar Isaac, the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” is an obvious choice, but I truly believe (and I’m not sure anyone else does) that the 2017 “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”-esque Netflix action heist thriller “Triple Frontier” featuring Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal is one of the more underrated films of the last decade. 


First Reformed 


Bridget’s Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars

“First Reformed” has been on my radar for a couple years after getting tons of praise when it was released in theaters in 2018. I knew that the film’s star Ethan Hawke was getting a lot of good buzz as was the movie as a whole. The film eventually found itself on many of that year’s top 10 lists, raked in plenty of awards and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. For whatever reason, I didn’t end up seeing it. Now, a couple years later, thanks to our Paul Schrader dive, I had my chance.

I must confess, unlike my co-writer, I don’t have much of a Schrader background. I don’t even think I’ve seen the entireties of the great Scorsese films he wrote. I vow to rectify this soon! Needless to say, I’m coming to “First Reformed,” which Schrader wrote AND directed, with completely fresh eyes. I was a little skeptical when I saw the film was released by the studio A24. Afterall, the last A24 movie I saw was “Green Knight” (Return to our column from a few weeks ago for my less-than-glowing thoughts on that). A24 is generally known for independent films that the critics love and are often pretty edgy, and “First Reformed” is definitely that.

The premise of the movie seems benign enough. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, who presides over a historic church in New York with a dwindling congregation. The good reverend is struggling with his faith as he fails to cope with the death of his son who was killed in Iraq in addition to his own alcoholism. He is approached by Mary, a parishioner played by Amanda Seyfried, about speaking to her husband, Michael. Michael, a radical environmentalist, is in an even darker place than Toller as he is completely consumed with worries about climate change and he and Mary’s unborn child. When Rev. Toller and Mary find Michael’s suicide vest, their concern grows.

Meanwhile, Toller is supposed to be planning his church’s 250th anniversary. He continues to struggle with his own mental state and health, and when Michael dies, things take an even darker turn. Toller now finds himself obsessed with Michael’s environmental cause and, in general, angry at the world as he also faces confusing feelings for Mary.  

Again, I can’t really compare this to Schrader’s previous work, but the phrase “slow boil” definitely applies here. Everything seemed pretty slow moving and lowkey at first, but as the movie progressed, I started leaning forward in my seat as my knuckles turned white. I might have even yelled at the screen or exclaimed loudly during the final couple of scenes. The ending is explosive and may be tough for some to watch, but I think the film succeeded.

Even as the movie was lowkey, it was perfectly written, which makes sense since that is Schrader’s bag. Hawke, who by this point has had a long career in Hollywood, was perfect in his role. I could feel the agony and anger dripping off him from the beginning of the film. Seyfried was strong in her supporting role, as was Cedric Kyles (better known as Cedric the Entertainer) who played another pastor.

In sum, I would recommend this movie for the cinephiles out there, even though I doubt I have it in me to watch it again soon. It was pretty brutal in a way that gets under your skin and keeps you awake for a night or two. This certainly isn’t a bad thing, and for me, indicates a movie did its job. It is a dark, strange ride. Let me know if you’ve seen “First Reformed” or see it in the future!

The Card Counter

Rob’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Play the hits. No need to reinvent the wheel. 

With “First Reformed” in 2018, Paul Schrader returned to the cinematic headspace of Travis Bickle, one of the most iconic antiheroes in the history of movies, and Oscar Isaac’s William Tillich (he goes by Tell, a la the famous apple shooter) in “The Card Counter” is quite simply the latest in a long line of God’s lonely men that includes De Niro, Richard Gere, Willem Dafoe (who plays a supporting role in this film), Nick Nolte, Nicolas Cage and Hawke. 

Although gambling is ostensibly the focal point and is explained in detail early on, it hardly matters at all by the final act. Tell is an ex-PFC who went to prison (8 ½ years) for his role in the torture program at Abu Ghraib while the major who trained him (Defoe) not only avoided prosecution but landed a cushy second career as a speaker for hire on the national security circuit. Tell lives on midsize winnings at no-name casinos until La Linda (Haddish) discovers him and sets him on a crash course with a host of opponents-- specifically, a recent Ukrainian immigrant who brands himself “Mr. USA.” 

A chance encounter with Cirk (Sheridan) leads them on a self-destructive quest for revenge that recalls William Devane’s Charles Rane in “Rolling Thunder”-- in his case, he was tortured in a Vietnamese POW camp-- and, as is par for the course in Schrader’s films, Tell keeps a journal full of his musings on the nature of unforgivable sin and drinks straight whiskey in austere motel rooms that are blanket wrapped to wipe out evidence that he was ever there at all. 

La Linda represents not only a conduit to big money games like the World Series of Poker but a chance for Tell to redeem himself through love, elusive as it may be for a man in his condition. During one of the best scenes in the movie, they walk through a beautifully lit city park, and she reassures him that no matter what he’s done before, it won’t change the way she sees him. 

It’s not hard to surmise, through the writer/director’s history and the general tone of the film (the casinos, in particular, are portrayed as miserable outposts full of desperate people), that it isn’t going to end on an upbeat note, and the 44 percentage point difference between critic (86) and audience (42) score on Rotten Tomatoes is proof that “The Card Counter” will go down as one of the more divisive releases of the year-- echoes of Adam Sandler and “Uncut Gems” in 2019. 

But I already know that I’m a mark for his specific brand of morose, moralistic melodrama: maybe it has something to do with the fact that I was a small-town Midwestern Methodist kid obsessed with the end of the world at 12 years old. 

Watching “The Card Counter” in an almost empty theater alone at 10:50 a.m. after driving over an hour on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks-- not long after Joe Biden’s controversial withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan-- made the whole experience feel particularly symbolic, and Schrader has plenty to say about some of the not so positive ripple effects of that traumatic event and the way it shaped our foreign policy in the ensuing years. Regardless of your politics, the film will make you think long and hard about difficult topics, and you may not love the conclusions you reach. 

Stay tuned for the latest edition of the column next week, and as always, send your feedback and/or topic suggestions to Bridget (news@wrightcountymonitor.com) or Rob (publisher@grundyregister.com). Thanks for reading! 



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