Skip to content

Paul Schrader’s American Carnage

On the “Man in a Room” trilogy

A young man with his face pressed between the bars, holding a young woman’s hand to his lips: this is how Robert Bresson ends Pickpocket, his 1959 film modeled on Crime & Punishment. For the preceding seventy-five minutes, Martin LaSalle’s Michel has committed petty robberies across Paris and eventually throughout Europe. He enjoys the transgression, the sense that he belongs to a select few men who can break the law with impunity. He is also good at it, an aptitude which Bresson depicts as a symphony of subtle gestures, minute movements of the palm and fingers—as an art form.

Yet running alongside this pleasure is the nagging sensation of his own guilt, of the sin accrued through his criminal acts. He is lectured by a friend, counseled by a police detective, and accepted by Jeanne (Marika Green), a family friend who refuses to disavow him even once he has been caught and imprisoned. At the film’s close, she visits him once, and then again. The force of Michel’s obsession, for so long channeled toward crime, is suddenly redirected. Only by running his criminality to the breaking point, by draining it dry, can he recognize another pursuit, submerged so long beneath the surface of the first. “Oh Jeanne!” he exclaims. “To reach you at last, what a strange path I had to take!” Imprisoned, he surrenders himself to love.

Paul Schrader first saw Pickpocket in 1969, when he was a film student at UCLA. “My life pivoted and defined itself,” he recently told Sight and Sound magazine. The film’s sparse, excessively formal style and simple narrative rhythms harmonized in his mind to express something profound: the holy. But the young critic also saw a means of becoming a director: “He sits in his house, writes a diary, goes out, commits some petty crimes, writes some more, the police visit him, he writes some more, runs into his neighbor, writes some more. [I thought,] I can do a film like that.”

His films have come to chronicle a nation in torment, damned for sins it can only halfway acknowledge, yet unwilling to accept the burden of redemption.

He’s been doing it ever since. Schrader loves the Pickpocket ending so much he’s used it in three of his own films. There is always an incarcerated man, a loving woman, a barrier which facilitates a moment of true connection. American Gigolo (1980) quotes the sequence nearly shot for shot; Richard Gere even whispers: “My God, Michelle, it’s taken me so long to come to you.” Light Sleeper (1992) casts it as a moment of resurrection, severing Willem Dafoe’s recalcitrant drug dealer from his criminal past. And in 2021’s hellish The Card Counter, two fingers touch opposite sides of a plexiglass partition, a final gesture of human compassion for a man whose soul will never be free.

It’s quite a lot of borrowing. Yet Schrader isn’t a thief, and his durable vision continues to expand. Bresson is concerned with the fate of one man; Schrader looks at the soul of America. His films have come to chronicle a nation in torment, damned for sins it can only halfway acknowledge, yet unwilling to accept the burden of redemption. He has become, unexpectedly, the premier chronicler of American violence: where it comes from, what it does, and how we might be able to move beyond it.  

Schrader was born in 1946 in a Christian Reformed community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was raised amid what he calls “the inherent conundrum of Calvinism: man is incapable of good, but he must try.” He did not see a film until he was seventeen years old and studied to become a pastor. During a brief stint at Columbia, he met Pauline Kael, who got him a spot at UCLA’s film school.

Initially, Schrader worked as a critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, where he first came upon Pickpocket. He made Bresson one of the subjects of his thesis, an attempt to merge his newfound obsession with film and the stark religious world in which he had been raised. Published in 1972 as Transcendental Style in Film, it connects Bresson’s work with that of Yasujirô Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer, three directors who sought “to maximize the mystery of existence.”

Pickpocket forms the crux of his chapter on Bresson. In the young Schrader’s view, Bresson’s films work by a sort of dialectical movement. The director insists on “everyday” stylization, “a surface of reality” stripped bare of the traditional cues of acting, narrative, or music which guide a viewer towards expected, conditioned responses. We see this in Michel’s flat affect, his repetitive actions, the threadbare quality of his life. And yet at the same time he is possessed of an “overpowering, transcendental” passion—his pickpocketing—which generates a “disparity,” drawing the viewer’s attention back to the limited, artificial nature of that “everyday” cinematic world and generating a tension in their mind.

In their closing moments, Bresson’s films choose not to resolve this tension. Instead, they sustain it through the process that Schrader calls “stasis,” a transcendent state which allows the everyday and the passionate, the physical and the spiritual, to coexist in the same frame. This requires “decisive action” on the part of his characters: an act that breaks from all our established expectations. Michel’s transference of his passion from crime to love is an example of his action, “a ‘miracle’ which must be accepted or rejected.” Without it, there can be no redemption, only a long future of hands at their expert but aimless work.

Schrader has always shown an interest in occupations—an interest he shares with Bresson, that master of close-up handiwork. His characters act out philosophical problems via their professions, as if they might resolve the question of who they are through what they do. American Gigolo’s Julian Kaye believes his ability to give women pleasure exceeds the bounds of the law. In Raging Bull (1980), Jake LaMotta tries to bludgeon life into submission, or at least to withstand the blows. In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Yukio Mishima attempts to resolve his debilities, his sexuality, his patriotism through his art, iterating a series of self-reinventions that fuse in the figure of the warrior. Many of Schrader’s men are insomniacs, driving all night to deliver people and drugs. These are people who know that they are not good, and only sometimes realize that they have to try.

In his Sight and Sound interview, Schrader says that he writes characters whose personal problems reflect a certain social malaise and then finds a job which will serve as a metaphor. “That became the template: to learn about the self by finding a metaphor that’s not at all like you—gigolo, drug dealer, minister, card player, gardener—and using him the same way that Robert Bresson used pickpockets.”

From his very first script, these men have often been veterans. Schrader has rarely portrayed war directly, preferring to deploy it, as in the films of Ozu, as a structuring absence, a massive event which, though unseen, continues to determine the story’s course. In 1974’s The Yakuza, Robert Mitchum plays a veteran of the Pacific Theater who returns to Japan to help out an old flame and finds a country fundamentally transformed by the occupation. Whatever his other preoccupations, Travis Bickle’s violent paranoia in Taxi Driver (1976) is also a byproduct of his time in Vietnam, which trained him to view the city as a war zone and his fellow citizens as hostiles. More than 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, and their deployments serve as the unacknowledged prehistory of films like Blue Collar (1978): a hardening, traumatizing experience that helps account for the ease with which Schrader’s films explode into catastrophic violence. He understands that this violence is endemic to American life—inflicted abroad, it is increasingly redeployed back home.

He understands that this violence is endemic to American life—inflicted abroad, it is increasingly redeployed back home.

This violence has been the explicit subject of Schrader’s three most recent films. The “Man in a Room” trilogy began in 2017, with First Reformed, a spiritual drama in the mold of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) that replaces nuclear dread with climate despair. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a historic Dutch Reformed church. Years earlier, he was a military chaplain and encouraged his son to enlist in the Army. The son was killed in Iraq, in a war with “no moral justification,” a loss that destroyed Toller’s marriage and left him utterly alone. As far as he is concerned, his guilt is permanent, and cannot be expunged. So he has closed off his life, spurning love and writing in his journal, a form of self-address which is as close as he can get to prayer.

Toller’s self-contained existence is blown open by a suicide bomb. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak with her husband Michael, a radical environmental activist, recently released from prison, who wants her to abort their baby. The world is rapidly degrading, and he does not want his daughter to live in an unlivable future. Toller debates the young man, an “exhilarating” experience he likens to Jacob wrestling with the angel. Schrader pulls this scene straight from Winter Light, in which the pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) not only fails to comfort his terrified parishioner (Max von Sydow) but even confesses grave doubts about God’s silence. First Reformed is more evenhanded: neither man bests the other, and they part with the assurance that they’ll continue their conversation at a later date.

A few days later, Mary is cleaning out her garage when she finds a bomb vest at the bottom of a box, suggesting that he plans to kill himself (and others) in protest. Toller promises to take care of it and hides the weapon in his closet. His martyrdom foiled, Michael shoots himself in the woods, making sure that Toller is the man to discover the body. After, the reverend begins his descent into a pit of radicalized despair, an internet-fueled click-through of environmental ruin and climate catastrophe driven by Michael’s final question: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”

In the film’s final stretch, Toller takes to wearing the vest, which is sewn with military emblems and images of environmental martyrs. He cruises like Travis Bickle through a callously ruined world, searching for the moment of destiny, of detonation. This might be a coming-apart, but it is also a return to his days of military discipline. When he first straps on the bomb vest, Toller snaps to attention, his heels clicking smartly on the parsonage floor. The life of the warrior is both comfort and solution, granted a holy dimension by his righteous cause. For too long have we wrought destruction abroad. Toller means to bring the war home.

So, eventually, does The Card Counter’s William Tell (a never-better Oscar Isaac). As PFC William Tillich, he served at Abu Ghraib, where he discovered that he liked torturing prisoners, and that he was good at it. He was only responsible for the brute work; his higher-ups gave the orders. Yet unlike their savvier commanding officers, Tillich and his fellow guards allowed their crimes to be photographed, and so they are sentenced to terms in prison, a sacrifice that protected the real architects of America’s torture policy.

In prison, Tillich is surprised to discover himself “suited to a life of incarceration.” He likes the predictable rhythms, the solid walls. He also teaches himself to count cards, taking refuge in a game in which all the numbers are known, and the odds can always be calculated. Card playing, he realizes, provides discipline to a life which might otherwise fill up with aimless violence.

Still, he seems to be seeking punishment. Tillich knows that his guilt is eternal, incapable of being expunged. In prison, he tries to goad other prisoners into killing him. After release he makes his entire life into a cage, one long sentence for his unforgivable sins. Under his new name, Tell, he drives from casino to casino, playing for small stakes. He sleeps in a succession of faceless motel rooms, and every night he takes the art off the walls and wraps the furniture in gray sheets, transforming every space into a prison cell. He is paying penance without expectation of forgiveness, enacting a lifelong via dolorosa on behalf of a country which does not even realize that it has sinned, let alone that it too should pay.

The Card Counter is a signal film of the 2000s, staring down the wreckage left by the global war on terror. Tell travels through a nation in hell, a dead landscape of floodlit rooms and strip mall motels suited only to warped men sublimating their violent tendencies into frivolous card playing. Schrader shoots Tell’s time at Abu Ghraib with an ultra-wide fisheye lens, making a violent contrast with the dull, matte-gray sheen of his present life. These are unhinged, vicious, gonzo images, illustrating, without euphemism, the sins for which he feels himself condemned. “Is there a limit to the amount of effort it takes to merit expiation?” he writes in his journal. “Is it possible to know when one reaches the limit?” From what we see, he might never get there.

Like Toller, Tell responds by reducing his life, closing himself off from the world. Yet the world always comes knocking. At one casino, he comes across John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), the commanding officer from Iraq who taught him how to torture. Gordo was never photographed, and so he did not go to jail. Instead, he lives in a nice suburban house and sells military tech to police departments, one of the thousands of contractors who have helped transform American law enforcement into an occupying force. Unable to accept this contradiction, Tell engages in a radical act of self-mortification, breaking into Gordo’s house and employing the skills his mentor taught him on both of their bodies. They sinned together, and so they must suffer as one.

Yet this is not really the end. Early in The Card Counter, Tell comes across La Linda (a delightful Tiffany Haddish), a former poker player who now works as a bank, backing card players who need help affording the buy-in for larger tournaments. Tell develops feelings for La Linda which, in his depraved state, he believes that he does not deserve and cannot act upon. But once he has returned to that life of incarceration for which he is best suited, she comes to visit him, an expression of genuine and inexplicable love which pushes through the suffocating cloak of his suffering. Their fingers touch on opposite sides of the glass, and Schrader holds on the image, extending Bresson’s stasis as the credits roll.

For Toller, love is a death dream; for Tell, a finger he can’t touch; and for Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), it might be redemption. The lead of 2023’s Master Gardener, Roth is a former neo-Nazi. As a member of that uniquely American paramilitary formation, the white supremacist militia, he murdered both snitches and those he considered racial subhumans. In flashbacks, we see him drilling in army surplus fatigues, firing weapons and marching in formation. This is playacting at war: Roth does not seem to have served in the military. Yet as the historian Kathleen Belew has shown, disgruntled veterans are at the root of America’s white power militias—it’s not hard to imagine Travis Bickle drilling alongside them.

At some point before the film’s present, Roth turned snitch, testifying against (and possibly assassinating) his old comrades. He then joined the witness protection program and was relocated to Gracewood Gardens, an old estate where he “found a life in flowers” as master gardener (and sexual plaything) under the tutelage of Sigourney Weaver’s Mrs. Haverhill. A well-tended garden is an application of aesthetic principles to the natural world, an intervention into cycles beyond human control. As a gardener, Roth attempts to cultivate a living artwork alongside the weather and the seasons, and he must be attentive to details no one else even notices. In his most charming scene, he places a handful of rich humus to his nose and inhales, as if trying to drink in the rich, innocent earth. “We used to walk barefoot upon the soil,” he marvels, a form of contact that united a person with their environment.

He seems to have transformed completely. But as with all of Schrader’s lonely protagonists, Roth’s small, orderly life belies his own violent potential, “the seeds of hate” which he wears as tattoos all across his skin. “I was raised to hate people,” he asserts. “And I was good at it.” However much his life has changed, Roth believes hatred to be his essential nature. Like Tell, this aptitude for evil has led him to a purgatorial existence, a form of self-incarceration defined by limited parameters and the permanent reminders of his guilt. His relationship with Haverhill is defined by this guilt, which gives her control. Before they sleep together, she makes him strip so that she can look on his tattoos with a fetishistic glee. Even Roth’s vocation, filled as it is with metaphors of growth, care, and regeneration, could be read as an extension of his earlier life: a process of purification that entails weeding out undesirable species.

For all its shortcomings, including flat lighting and a godawful performance from Tye Sheridan, The Card Counter is a unified film, flawed in execution rather than conception. Gardener is often just messy, easily the least of Schrader’s late work. Characters often seem to respond according to plot demands, rather than any established interiority. Roth’s background seems hidden from most people, yet some side characters recognize it immediately. Weaver’s Mrs. Haverhill feels particularly underdeveloped, her authoritarian old-money largesse never quite getting the space it needs to bloom. There is an extended subplot involving an exceptionally dweeby drug dealer which sucks much of the menace out of the plot’s final stretch. Perhaps most disappointingly, Roth’s conversion is left unexplained and largely unexplored. Something happened during his months of house arrest, something driven perhaps by his journaling, his gradual self-examination, his growing belief in the possibility of blossoming things. But what?

Schrader mulled this ambiguity over for Sight and Sound. “Maybe because I can’t [answer it]. Maybe because it’s only hypothetical. Is it possible for a Proud Boy to become a good person and racially tolerant? I suppose. But movies aren’t stories about the way things are; they are fables.”

Master Gardener’s fable centers on Maya Core (Quintessa Swindell), Haverhill’s very young, very troubled, and, most troubling for Haverhill, very mixed-race grand niece. Maya is an orphan, addicted to drugs, and, in her great-aunt’s opinion, she has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Haverhill brings her to Gracewood Gardens and tasks Roth with teaching her the history and intricacies of gardening so that Maya might one day take over his job. After she is assaulted by her boyfriend, Maya moves onto the property, and their relationship deepens. One night, she tries to seduce Roth, but when she almost sees his tattoos, he rebuffs her. A jealous Mrs. Haverhill ejects them both from the plantation, and they begin a road trip to nowhere as Maya detoxes. Roth’s care becomes more intimate, wiping her clean in the shower and taking her to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Schrader in his old age is trying to push past his own paradigms, to explore questions he can’t answer, and to write his way out of the morass of American violence.

Schrader seems intent on mapping as many possible conflicts—race, age, politics, sexuality—onto their relationship and then scrambling the expected results. (Per Sight and Sound: “The film will have so many hot buttons that [the audience will] get confused.”) They come together after Roth reveals his tattoos, to show Maya who he once was and, perhaps, to drive her away. It probably should. Instead, she comes to his room, strips naked, and demands that he strip too. Like her great-aunt, she looks at his tattoos, but rather than being titillated, she orders him to remove them. Roth believes that he cannot be good; Maya demands that he try. In order to surrender to love, he must give up his capacity for violence. So, he submits. Their sex is imagined as a riot of growing things, a living landscape blooming over with pleasure. 

The film ends with the pair together, waltzing across the porch of Roth’s cabin. They will marry and tend the garden. Love has made Roth a free man. For once, Schrader has achieved Pickpocket’s stasis without deploying the Pickpocket ending.

Placed against Schrader’s recent output, it’s a remarkably optimistic conclusion. I’m more convinced by his despair. Schrader’s best films are guided by a sense of predestination, enclosed by the confines of transcendental cinema. Conditioned by a violent society, his lonely men are driven, inevitably, towards decisive, destructive acts. From the moment he takes the bomb vest, Toller is destined to wear it. Tell will never escape the knowledge that he was a model interrogator. For a while, Roth accepts that he excelled at bigotry.

Master Gardener’s structure demands that he move past that acceptance, that he erase his past and cultivate a new life by falling well and truly in love with Maya—a development contained in the script, but not on the screen. When Michel gives in to Jeanne, the experience is ecstatic. We witness the conversion of his soul, rather than the completion of a metaphor. But Roth’s conversion is made in secret, before we ever meet him; he falls in love because Schrader’s fable demands it. His journey is meant to stand in for our country’s, and he crumbles under the weight.

Schrader likens his creative process to a pair of wires: you put them together, and a current flows. But as long as the wires are touching completely, the viewer has nothing to do. So the goal is to pull them apart, little by little, while keeping the current alive. Despite Master Gardener’s many interesting ideas, Schrader pulls them too far apart, and his film loses its charge. Still, it’s encouraging to see how Schrader in his old age is trying to push past his own paradigms, to explore questions he can’t answer, and to write his way out of the morass of American violence. Master Gardener doesn’t get there; I hope we will.