STORYTELLERS REVEAL THEMSELVES in their recurring motifs—the forms they can’t stop revisiting, the echoes they build into their body of work. For Paul Schrader, one such echo is a very specific scene, one he recreated yet again in The Card Counter, his latest film and one of his best. I’m talking about the last scene of the movie, in which an imprisoned man is visited by a woman who represents some sort of escape, some sort of hope. Schrader has ended movies in this precise way twice before: in American Gigolo, it was Richard Gere gazing at Lauren Hutton through webbed glass, and in Light Sleeper it was Willem Dafoe across a divider from Susan Sarandon. Two times could be a coincidence, but three is a pattern, and in The Card Counter Schrader doesn’t just repeat the endings of the other movies but provides a sort of skeleton key to the meaning of those previous denouements.
This time it’s Oscar Isaac behind the glass, as blackjack and poker player William Tell, a former soldier and torturer at Abu Ghraib. Tell’s life since the war has been a collection of Schrader hallmarks: an ordered and obsessive existence at the fringes of society that masks alienation, guilt, and a longing for redemption and connection. By the film’s end, he’s in prison for a climactic and consummating act of dubiously redemptive violence (another Schrader motif). Waiting on the other side of the prison glass is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), the woman he loves—his true redemption, if he’d been smart enough to stay with her.
In the prior films, Gigolo and Sleeper, the jailed men first spoke with the women visiting them, then performed a movement, a gesture, that embodied their reaching out for love and connection. Gere leaned his forehead toward the glass, symbolically placing his head against Hutton’s hand; Dafoe reached across the table and drew Sarandon’s fingers toward his mouth for a kiss that becomes a freeze-frame for the film’s credits. In The Card Counter, Isaac and Haddish skip the talking and go straight to reaching for each other, each pressing a single finger against the glass. Visually, this becomes a near-perfect echo of Michelangelo’s Adam reaching out to God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—an image of fallen man reaching out for divine redemption. Like Tell and La Linda, Adam and God almost but do not quite touch.
And it’s here that Schrader tips his hand, telling us precisely what’s going on in that scene—the one he can’t stop revisiting, in which a fallen, sinful man is visited by a divine woman.
It’s God on the other side of that glass.
My fascination with the films of Paul Schrader is rooted in part in our shared religious background. I was raised Dutch Calvinist, in a small Iowa town where almost everyone I knew—my friends, my neighbors, my classmates—shared both parts of that identity. Ours was a totalizing worldview, a religion that demanded not just Sunday observance but everything, every part of who we were, every part of our world. In church, we began memorizing our catechism with the statement that “I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ”; this, our pastors told us, was our “only comfort in life and death.” Our schools were Calvinist too, private schools in which our teachers extended God’s territory beyond our bodies and souls to “every square inch” of creation. These words, which echoed ideas of the Dutch Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper, were a sort of rallying cry in our religious subculture, an explanation of how we were different from the other Christians. Their faith might end at the church doors, but ours didn’t. Our God was a jealous god. Our God wanted it all.
Schrader grew up in the same religious subculture I did—albeit in Michigan rather than Iowa. Grand Rapids, Schrader’s hometown, was another stomping ground for Dutch Calvinists, perhaps the stomping ground. The city was and still is home to dozens of Calvinist churches, religious schools, and a university bearing John Calvin’s name. Schrader was famously forbidden from watching movies by his pious Calvinist parents. He earned a degree from Calvin College, then eventually escaped to UCLA film school and a career in the movies—by the logic of his upbringing, a secular life, a profane life. A life of sin. (Though if our Calvinist God really demanded “every square inch,” mightn’t God like movies too?)
I first became aware of Schrader when I was a teenager, feeling the first stirrings of ambition to be a writer. I wanted to know of writers who came from where I’d come from and made great art from the experience. But there weren’t many to look up to, and most of them were held to have lost their faith: the novelists Frederick Manfred and Peter DeVries, and then of course Schrader. Of those three, Schrader’s was the name spoken with the most hush to it, the one whose films seemed most illicit to the pious adults in my life. They said Schrader had once written and directed a movie about a Michigan church elder with a Dutch name, Van Dorn. In one scene, the character, who is played by George C. Scott, even explained the five core tenets of our faith. (Google tulip if you’re interested; I won’t bore you.) It was probably the most notable attention our little Christian sect had ever received in a piece of narrative art. These facts were strange and thrilling to me—the trappings of my life and my youthful belief system, turned into art. But the film was called Hardcore, and it was about the porn business. The grownups wouldn’t let me watch it.
When I finally did watch Schrader’s films, it was in secret, on my own—much as Schrader himself snuck away to watch his first movie at the age of fourteen. What I found there—in the films Schrader directed, like Hardcore, Affliction, Light Sleeper, and American Gigolo, and the ones he wrote for others, like Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead—was rich and strange. Aside from Scott’s character in Hardcore, I saw little of Schrader’s and my shared religious upbringing on the screen. There were no church-basement dinners, no pastors or elders, no catechism lessons, no sleepy midwestern towns populated by simple God-fearing folk. Schrader’s films were populated instead by drug dealers and addicts, prostitutes and pimps, and angry, alienated men looking for either redemption or self-destruction through violence.
Yet the films called to me nonetheless. The world Schrader portrayed was foreign. But something about it felt familiar all the same. It looked a bit like the sin-obsessed religion I grew up with felt.
Calvinism is surely one of the most severe of the world’s theologies. In its simplest formulation, it begins with two key ideas: first, the supreme power and authority of God; second, the fundamental weakness and depravity of human beings. The logical outgrowth of these two concepts is predestination, Calvinism’s most infamous doctrine: the notion that salvation comes not from anything humans can do but from God’s choice. God chooses who will go to heaven, and God even (according to some) actively chooses others to go to hell, predestining them to an eternity of conscious torment.
If you believe in these ideas, as I (and presumably Schrader) once did, the next challenge is to live with them without going mad. Imagine a kid, let’s say a thirteen-year-old, lying awake deep into the night wondering if he is destined for an eternity of joy in heaven or unspeakable misery and pain in hell. That insomniac kid was me. The problem as I saw it was that God did the choosing, but God also wasn’t talking, wasn’t telling me what decision he’d made vis-à-vis my immortal soul. I knew that I was going one place or the other, and I wanted desperately to know which one, but I couldn’t. So I looked for loopholes. Sometimes I reasoned that if God had chosen me for saving, he’d also make me good, through his sovereign power. But the outcome there was inconclusive—at best I was about half good and half bad. Other times I examined my emotions for some sign, some God-given assurance, a peace that passeth understanding, that could stand as a positive indication of God’s choice for me. But that didn’t work either, except as a cataloging of my mercurial adolescent moods. Some nights I’d find calm within myself and drift off to sleep, but all too often I’d find an underlying depression or fear that I took as a sign of my damnation, and the heavy air of my basement bedroom would weigh down on my chest, making it hard to breathe. I think I experienced something of hell on those sleepless nights.
The believing Calvinist who thinks obsessively about these concepts, as I did, who bargains with them into the night, may end up in a sort of limbo in which one simultaneously occupies both sides of the salvation/damnation binary, a quantum state of uncertainty where one is saved and condemned at once. All humans are fallen, damned, imprisoned in sin without any ability to break free, but for God’s grace, which might be there for you…or not.
I may not have recognized the narrative specifics of Schrader’s films when I first started watching them—the drugs, the griminess, and the violence were all alien to me. But the psychological and spiritual contours of the world Schrader portrayed were familiar. From Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to John LeTour in Light Sleeper or Wade Whitehouse in Affliction, Schrader’s antiheroes tend to be self-hating; they feel a pervasive guilt that stems from no specific sin but rather from a general state of being, and as their isolation deepens, they see no difference between the poison in themselves and the poison in the world. Above all, they long for escape from the trap of their lives but are powerless to break free. Like a person caught in quicksand, the Schrader male antihero struggles toward salvation only to be driven deeper into the thing that’s swallowing him whole. His play for redemption becomes another cause for guilt and shame, a part of the psychological and spiritual apparatus keeping him trapped, miserable, and disconnected. It was as though Schrader had taken my existential predicament and dramatized it using the conventions of crime film, excavating the entire Calvinist guilt complex, externalizing it as narrative, and ending up with nightmare neo-noir.
The Card Counter executes this familiar template with new flourishes, a vibrant visual imagination, and palpable creative confidence. William Tell is a classic Schrader protagonist, as isolated and guilty as the rest of them. His guilt stems from a single source, an original sin—the terrible things he did on America’s behalf at Abu Ghraib, for which he was sent to military prison—but his guilt is also an inescapable state of being. He was pushed to become a torturer by the film’s villain, the demonic Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), and the flashbacks to the torture program at Abu Ghraib are captured in a fisheye view so intense that the edges of the frame distort almost to incomprehensibility, the prison’s filthy hallways curling in on themselves like a labyrinth with no escape. These visual methods convey the upside-down moral logic of the place—logic to which Tell succumbed. But Tell also confesses that his sins as a torturer connected him to a deeper depravity in himself. “It was in me,” he admits, making it clear that the evil of the place had awakened an evil that was already lurking inside him.
This is all backstory, told in flashback. After the torture program at Abu Ghraib is exposed, Tell becomes a convenient scapegoat for the sins of the American anti-terror effort, the guy smiling in the horrifying photos as the bosses stand behind the camera or sit in offices at Langley or in DC. He does time, gets out, then enters into a life as a blackjack and poker player, driving from one casino to the next, winning enough to pay for his hotels and food but not so much that the pit bosses know his face. As with the occupations of prior Schrader antiheroes (drug dealer, prostitute, night taxi driver), Tell’s gambling is a fringe occupation that gives him a vantage on a part of the world some might find squalid. It’s also a mask he pulls over his guilt, a structured lifestyle that eases the pain of his existence by holding the world at a distance. Poker and blackjack are games of chance, but at Tell’s level of play there is an order to them as well: in blackjack you count the cards and play the house, while in poker you play the odds on each hand and also play the other people at the table.
Most puzzling is Tell’s habit of draping every object in his hotel rooms in white sheets, completely covering the beds, the side tables, the lamps, the desks. Why he does this is never explained, but the image is undeniably compelling, even quietly terrifying. As Tell ties a sheet around the foot of a table with twine, you wonder with a chill what else those careful torturer’s hands have done, what other kinds of knots he’s tied, and for what purpose. It’s something a criminal might do in preparation for an evil deed, a serial killer’s ritual to make sure there are no unfortunate blood splatters or fingerprints. Whatever the explicit purpose, the practice has the effect of distancing Tell from the world. It ensures that wherever he goes he leaves no marks, that he is protected from the world—and perhaps more importantly, given his belief in his fundamental badness, that the world is protected from him and the moral contagion he carries. Like the tidy math of card-counting, the sheet-draped hotel rooms are comparatively clean next to the moral and literal filth of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks, much as the casinos themselves are clean, and both bright and dark at once—another hell, of sorts, but a neon-lit one.
The fundamentally religious implications of Tell’s predicament are made clear by a tattoo on his back: I trust my life to providence / I trust my soul to grace. These two phrases come right out of the Calvinist playbook. Providence is a concept closely related to God’s sovereignty, his power and authority over all things. And “I trust my soul to grace” is in some ways a concise restatement of the doctrine of predestination, placing all hope of salvation in a grace that comes from outside the self, not dependent on any effort by the individual needing saving. In his state of depravity and guilt, Tell cannot trust his soul to himself; his only chance at salvation comes from a grace that must inexplicably choose him if he’s going to be saved. I don’t necessarily take the phrase to mean that Tell believes that he will be saved by grace, or that he has been saved by grace. Rather, in the context of the film and of what we know of Tell’s character, it seems more likely that Tell hopes for some form of redemption, doesn’t think himself very likely to receive it, but knows that there is nowhere else he can put his trust. Whether grace has chosen him to be saved or passed over him to be damned is something that only time will tell.
It’s not so different from a desperate poker player betting all his chips on one last-ditch hand. Or my agonized realization, all those years ago as a scared Calvinist kid, that I’d never know whether God had chosen me for heaven or hell until I died and found myself in one place or the other.
A measure of grace does end up coming for Tell, in the form of two people who wander into his life. The first is a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), whom Tell encounters at a security conference offered in the hotel of one of the casinos where he’s playing. Cirk and Tell first meet at a talk offered by Major Gordo, the army contractor who taught Tell to torture and set him up to take the fall. Later, meeting at the hotel bar, Cirk and Tell learn of their shared vendetta against Gordo: Cirk’s father was similarly set up as a fall guy by Gordo, which resulted in his abusing his family and ultimately taking his own life. Cirk wants to torture and kill Gordo, and he needs Tell’s help.
Tell takes a dim view of violent revenge as a means of redemption. More than anything, Tell is concerned about Cirk, sensing in him a fellow lost soul—traumatized by his father, estranged from his mother, dropped out of college, and wandering the country while nursing fantasies of violence. Tell knows from bitter experience that violence is not redemptive and torturing Gordo will not bring Cirk the closure he seeks. Perhaps Cirk’s lost soul is one Tell can save.
The other person who comes into Tell’s life is La Linda (Haddish), a woman who finds promising poker players to fund for big buy-ins, with an agreement to share the winnings. She wants to add Tell to her stable of prospects, and at first he’s not interested. He prefers small bets, small wins. But after meeting Cirk, he agrees to her terms for a few tournaments. His plan is to use the winnings to fund a new life for Cirk, to get him back into college and reunited with his mom. Along the way, he develops feelings for La Linda, opening up a second avenue to possible redemption.
This may not be the kind of redemption that a hellfire Christian preacher would recognize—it is not a forgiveness of sins in the blood of Jesus Christ. But what redemption there is in a Paul Schrader film usually comes through human relationships: Gere falling for Hutton in American Gigolo, Dafoe pursuing Delaney and then Sarandon in Light Sleeper, or even De Niro attempting to connect with Cybill Shepherd and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. The redemption on offer is often ambiguous (especially in Taxi Driver), but even so, a relationship—quite often a romantic one—is presented as a means by which Schrader’s antiheroes can change, claw their way out of the traps they live in, and become the kind of people who can receive grace. The ability to love and be loved is the first step in a process by which the soul can be awakened and invigorated, and through which people can be freed from guilt and shame to begin repairing the damage they’ve done in the world.
First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s most explicitly religious film, makes this connection between romantic love and spiritual redemption explicit in its much-debated ending, in which a planned act of retributive violence against an environmental polluter is cut short and replaced by a surprising scene—possibly imagined or dreamed after death—where Ethan Hawke’s pastor character passionately kisses a young woman played by Amanda Seyfried. Puzzling through the scene in interviews, Schrader has said, “Want to know what heaven looks like? This is exactly what it looks like. It looks like one long kiss.”
But redemption is usually short lived in a Schrader film, and it’s no different in The Card Counter. By my accounting, Tell gets maybe one night of happiness—one night with La Linda, one night where Cirk’s life seems to be getting back on track. Then he gets the bad news: Cirk didn’t reunite with his mother. He went after Major Gordo and was killed in the process.
The sudden loss of Cirk, and of his chance at redeeming himself by saving the younger man, sets Tell on a path toward a climactic act of violence. It is not redemptive violence, and unlike in other Schrader films (Taxi Driver or First Reformed), not even the antihero seems to believe that it will be redemptive. You can’t redeem yourself from being a torturer by torturing another torturer to death. But Tell does it anyway, perhaps because he’s stopped believing that he can be saved. Both he and Gordo are trapped in their sin. Gordo dies, blood is shed—but no one is saved. Tell goes back to prison. It’s where he belongs: trapped, still, by the things he’s done.
And yet La Linda still visits him, reaches out to him from the other side of the glass, still loves him and stands as a symbolic promise of some future redemption.
Tell is in the in-between space, the quantum space: both imprisoned and free.
I’m not a Calvinist anymore. Neither is Paul Schrader. After First Reformed, when everyone was asking him about his faith, he said he was still a Christian. Just not a Calvinist.
Still, there’s something hard to shake about the faith you were brought up in. The theology you drank with your mother’s milk, the lessons you heard in Sunday school, the catechism you memorized when you were still too young to drive—that’s the stuff that’s hardest to shake, because it’s what cut the deepest groove in your soul. Maybe this is why Schrader has spoken of his “sacred past and profane present” even though he’s apparently still a person of faith: because on some level the religion of your childhood is the only one that feels real.
No, I’m not a Calvinist anymore—but on some level I can barely understand, I also sort of am. I’m still that kid lying awake in bed at night, wondering whether God has chosen him for heaven or hell, living in that quantum space, that space where both things are true at once: saved and damned, sinner and saint.
A prisoner, trapped by the consequences of his own mistakes—but visited, even pursued, by a love that won’t give up on him.
Adam reaching out to God, reaching for salvation, and finding it just beyond his grasp.
Or a poker player, all in, holding his breath in the moment before the dealer turns over the cards, waiting to see if this will be the hand that gives him unimaginable riches—or sends him home with nothing.
Andrew DeYoung is the author of The Temps and The Exo Project, winner of a 2018 Minnesota Book Award. He lives in Saint Paul with his wife and children.