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Paul Schrader’s filmmaking career is bookended by two major U.S. wars that ended in American evacuations, and both of those experiences simmer below the surface of two of his seminal movies. Schrader penned the script for Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic Taxi Driver in the shadow of the Vietnam War, and identified that film's main character — Robert De Niro's disturbed cabbie, Travis Bickle — as a veteran of that conflict.
Now, the writer/director's latest movie, The Card Counter, is opening in theaters weeks after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, effectively ending the so-called "War on Terror" that began two decades ago in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the film, Oscar Isaac plays former military man William Tell, who remains haunted by what he witnessed and participated in during his tour of duty inside Abu Ghraib, the infamous Iraqi prison where terrorist suspects were routinely tortured.
"It's essentially the same thing," Schrader tells Yahoo Entertainment about the experience of watching the final military helicopters fly out of Saigon in 1975, and the last Air Force planes leaving Kabul in 2021. "You're talking about internal anti-colonial civil war, as if you're going to fix that as a colonialist! I think that the ending of the Vietnam was written long before it happened, and the ending of Afghanistan has been written for quite awhile."
"The Afghanistan fiasco has been happening for 20 years," Schrader continues. "We shouldn't have been there in the first place. Nation building is not something you do with military attacks. The British learned that, Russia's learned it, and now we've learned it. Even the best intended of nations is susceptible to the darkness that lies within this kind of activity."
As conceived by Schrader, Isaac's character experiences that same descent into darkness, becoming an exceptionally brutal interrogator with the aiding and abetting of a senior officer John Gordo, played by Willem Dafoe. William eventually ends up serving a lengthy prison sentence for his crimes, and emerges to begin a new career as a card counting poker player — making just enough money to get by, while avoiding human connections. That changes when he meets Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of another soldier who served at Abu Ghraib and who blames John for his dad's early death. William takes Cirk under his wing in the hopes of breaking that cycle of violence, but the guilt of his former life is never far from his mind.
Raised in a strict Calvinist household, guilt is a subject that's never far from Schrader's mind either. "We live in a society where no one is ever really responsible," the filmmaker explains. "It's always: 'I didn't lie, I misspoke, I didn't touch her inappropriately, I made a mistake.' I come from a background that's the opposite: You're born into a world saturated with guilt, and you're only getting guiltier as it goes on. So I approach my characters with the mindset of 'What happens to them after they've done something?' Abu Ghraib shamed the nation, and it's something that can't be forgiven, at least in William's mind. That's what I'm trying to get at in this film."
While the main characters of Taxi Driver and The Card Counter are connected by their military backgrounds (and penchant for narrating their inner thoughts), Schrader considers Travis's Vietnam service to ultimately be less important to the finished film than William's time in Iraq. "There are a lot of good films about Vietnam, but Taxi Driver is not one of them. Travis does have a patch that says 'King Kong Company,' and he presumably picked that up in the service, but there's no other mention. I stayed away from that."
Forty-five years after its release, Schrader semi-jokingly refers to Taxi Driver as "the film that won't die," kept alive by stories of real-life stories of lone killers that recall Travis's climactic rampage, as well as through extended pop culture homages like Todd Phillip's Joker. "When the film was made, the word 'incel' did not exist," the writer notes. "It kind of caught something that was being born and, as a metaphor, used someone who had previously been thought of as a friendly person — the cabbie — and made him the black heart of existentialism. You couldn't make that film today, and I wouldn't know how to write it today!"
Schrader is equally stumped on how he would approach remaking another one of his signature works, 1980's American Gigolo, starring Richard Gere as a male escort who has his own personal demons. (Funnily enough, Schrader slips a knowing reference to that film's final scene into the closing moments of The Card Counter.) But an American Gigolo reboot is coming anyway, courtesy of the movie's producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, who recently announced it as a Showtime series with Jon Bernthal in Gere's role.
"They called me about it some years and I told them that I thought it was a terrible idea," Schrader says, laughing. "Bruckheimer said, 'Well, we're going to make it and we don't want you involved.' So they paid me $50,000 to stay uninvolved! I'll probably watch it out of curiosity, because how can they make an essentially '80s formula work in this age of internet porn? That film is still premised on homosexuality and women's sexuality being closeted. If you take those things out of the closet, I don't know what kind of drama you have."
The Card Counter is currently playing in theaters.