With the screenplays for Sydney Pollack’s “The Yakuza” (1975), Brian De Palma’s “Obsession” (1976), John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder,” Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980) under his belt, Paul Schrader‘s legacy as a seminal figure in 1970s American screenwriting was unassailably assured. Yet not only did he go on to write “The Mosquito Coast” and Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation Of Christ,” he has also enjoyed a long, diverse career as a director, with his most recent foray being released last week: the controversial, chatter-worthy “The Canyons” (you can read our review here).
While not as celebrated (or maybe as consistently assured) as his writing, Schrader’s directing career is nevertheless an intriguing one. Often tapping into the same sordid corners of the human psyche that his most famous screenplays deal in, with morally layered themes of obsession, guilt, repression, catharsis and psychosis often culminating in acts of anti-social psychosexual violence, he’s certainly a fit subject for auteurist analysis—rarely is it so clear that a filmmaker’s directorial impulses are largely an extension of his concerns and preoccupations as a writer, and presumably, as a man. Of course, Schrader grew up in a hardcore Calvinist environment, and the author himself often attributes the pain and conflict of his various characters to the friction he pent up while working against the tight confines of this upbringing.
A cinephile from the very beginning, Schrader wrote the seminal book “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer” in 1972 at the tender age of 26 (having completed a M.A. in film, for which he was recommended by none other than Pauline Kael) and soon thereafter, his screenplays were gaining the attention of ’70s movie brats DePalma and Scorsese (he even wrote an early draft of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind,” but Steven Spielberg rejected it for being too dark and guilt-obsessed). The critical acclaim for Schrader’s screenplays eventually led to his debut directorial film, “Blue Collar” (1978), and the filmmaker hasn’t looked back since.
Schrader, ever the film buff, has often spoken at length about how influential certain films were on his writing and directing career. One key influence is Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” which in many ways sums up the filmmaker’s raison d’etre. “[Bresson] taught me I could make films about unlikeable people—I could take an outcast, a lonely man, a guy who lives an interior life, and say, ‘Let’s walk in his shoes.’ ‘Pickpocket’ gave me the courage to write ‘Taxi Driver,’ and from that point on I have never had a problem with characters that appear beyond empathy. I’ve made films about a wannabe assassin, a gigolo, a drug dealer and a guy who’s totally into home porn.” So let’s fall into step beside some of these losers, loners and disaffected screw-ups, as we take a trip back through the rogues’ gallery of Paul Schrader’s uneven, but never less than fascinating directorial career.
“Blue Collar” (1978)
When Spike Lee revealed his list of essential movies that he hands out to his film students at NYU on the first day of class, amongst the classics by Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini was an interesting choice, tucked away in the bottom half: Paul Schrader’s offbeat heist movie “Blue Collar.” Schrader’s directorial debut following a string of high-profile collaborations with directors like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Sydney Pollack, tells the story of three auto workers (Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel), who decide to rob their local union chapter and wind up with much more than they bargained for: a ledger that ties the union to organized crime. For a movie that ostensibly fits into the crime genre, “Blue Collar” borders on being a naturalistic masterpiece, full of small moments that, had any other filmmaker been in charge, would have been the first to hit the cutting room floor. In fact, much of the movie consists of the three actors standing around and shooting the breeze on the assembly line or in the local bar, mostly about how strapped for cash they are (Keitel’s daughter needs braces, Pryor has been lying on his income tax, and Kotto is in deep with some loan sharks). Once they make the heist, the movie shifts gears and becomes a darker beast altogether, much more closely resembling the bleak hopelessness that Schrader brought to “Taxi Driver” than the gonzo comedy some were expecting when buying a ticket to “the new Richard Pryor movie” (Pryor, for his part, is absolutely brilliant, in a live wire performance that ranks amongst his very best). It’s a testament to Schrader’s talents as a first time filmmaker that the notoriously contentious behind-the-scenes drama never leaks onto the screen (the three leads hated each other and at one point Pryor, high on cocaine, pointed a loaded gun at Schrader’s head). Schrader claims that he suffered his first on-set nervous breakdown thanks to “Blue Collar.” But it was worth it: the movie is an underseen classic, full of moments that you can’t imagine making it into any movie today, indie or otherwise (highlights include a bizarre, threadbare orgy sequence halfway through the film involving cunnilingus and a dildo sword fight, plus a late-in-the-movie suspense set piece that ranks amongst the best of the decade). Schrader’s first film might also be his best. [A]
The lurid erotic neon-soaked sleaze of L.A. has been well-documented in music, with bands like The Doors, Jane’s Addiction and Guns’ N’ Roses (not to mention the ‘70s L.A. punk scene) all taking inspiration from the anti-glamor of the seedy Sunset Strip. Michael Mann also has a preoccupation with this scuzzy milieu and its vampiric subdwellers, but no one chronicles its sordid grime quite like Paul Schrader—perhaps because it was so vivid and fresh when he first experienced it relatively late in life. Borrowing autobiographical elements from his own Calvinist upbringing, “Hardcore” stars the great George C. Scott as a conservative Midwestern father and businessman who has to delve into the squalid underworld of L.A. pornography to recover his abducted daughter. Co-starring Peter Boyle as a shady private detective and Season Hubley as a porn actress that helps the father track down his daughter, the picture chronicles a generally unseen subculture and exploits its dramatic and revolting qualities for all they’re worth, like many of Schrader’s movies. There’s a dark religious irony at work within “Hardcore” too, that Schrader likely relished: how does a man so pious deserve a daughter consumed by the sub-rosa world of pornography? Along his journey into the netherworld of L.A., Scott’s father gets his hands real dirty having to deal with every pimp, prostitute and greasy peddler to find his precious kin and in doing so, loses a piece of his humanity. Featuring a score by Jack Nitzsche and cinematography by Michael Chapman (who, just a few years earlier, shot the New York grime of Travis Bickle’s New York for Scorsese), “Hardcore,” is typically bleak stuff from Schrader that like “Taxi Driver” is modelled after John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Perhaps the most telling dichotomy of “Hardcore,” which brings us into the window of the director/writer’s psyche, is watching the painful repugnance the protagonist endures while losing his soul and simultaneously, in what is obviously Schrader’s utter morbid fascination with this X-rated world. [B+]
“American Gigolo” (1980)
More L.A. sleaze from Schrader came only one year later in the stylish “American Gigolo,” proving the filmmaker hadn’t quite exorcised his demons or his desire to document the depraved seedy underbellies of Californian society. This time, however, his trademark self-destructive urban loner protagonist lives in the world of upscale male hustling. A classier affair than “Hardcore,” apropos for a world that calls their streetwalkers “gigolos” instead of “prostitutes,” ‘Gigolo’ still has its share of kink, amorality and degenerates. Following the noir-ish set-up template of a desperate man in desperate circumstances, “American Gigolo’ stars Richard Gere as Julian, a shallow, narcissistic male escort with champagne tastes who finds himself framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Lauren Hutton co-stars as his object-of-affection trick who is married to a local politician, Hector Elizondo plays the indefatigable detective hot on his heels, and Bill Duke plays the unscrupulous pimp that sends Julian on his most debased assignments. One of these is a rich man who pays Julian to physically abuse and have sex with his wife while he leers on in the background. She turns up dead a few days later and though Julian has an alibi, the client refuses to cooperate in order to protect her reputation. Squeezed from all sides, Julian’s desperation becomes more violent as he seeks to uncover who set him up. The character’s bloody frantic is heightened by Giorgio Moroder‘s ominous electro pulse of a score (though it’s really just different instrumental variations of Blondie’s “Call Me”) and by John Bailey‘s shooting (in only his third DP credit). Whereas “Hardcore” depicted its sleaze in the neon night of L.A., Schrader here decided on perhaps a more insidious illustration: the nastier side of sex in affluent California in broad daylight (though the darkly lit and scuzzy gay club scenes are on par with anything William Friedkin delivered in his notorious “Cruising”). Detached and voyeuristic in the way that many Schrader films are (which puts some audiences at a distance), there’s a cold and deadened eroticism to “American Gigolo” that’s perhaps not unlike the director’s more recent “The Canyons”: Julian’s a lost soul and perhaps by nature of his trade, there’s simply no easy passage to redemption. [B]
“Cat People” (1982)
If Paul Schrader’s writing and directing track record was mostly unassailable up until “American Gigolo,” it faltered rather hard with the poorly received “Cat People,” an erotic horror remake of Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 effort of the same name. Starring Nastassja Kinski (in various states of softcore full frontal undress, of course), “Cat People” chronicles the story of a young woman who discovers that her sexual awakening and erotic arousals turn her into a monstrous murderous black panther. Reunited with her brother in New Orleans, Irene (Kinski), finds herself drawn to a captured black panther (who mauled someone) at a local zoo where she quickly takes a job in the nearby gift shop. Co-starring Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole and Ed Begley Jr., if your suspension of disbelief is strained in just reading the basic synopsis, well, it’s largely strained in execution as well. While “Cat People” has an admirably sensual mood and ominous atmosphere and tone, Schrader’s attempt at saying something about the degradation of sexual innocence is lost in what mostly amounts to a lurid B-movie (the unintentionally humorous tagline: “An erotic fantasy about the animal in us all” kind of says it all). Giorgio Moroder once again composed the score, including the film’s eponymous theme song sung by David Bowie (and most recently appropriated by Quentin Tarantino for “Inglourious Basterds”) and while that’s sultry enough, Schrader’s ongoing examination of desire and sexual hang-ups has been represented far more potently elsewhere. [C]
“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985)
Schrader has referred to ‘Mishima’ as his best work as director and the motion picture, boasting executive producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, is a tremendous accomplishment. Ostensibly a biopic, but more aptly a study of controversial Japanese poet Yukio Mishima, Schrader invokes arresting imagery via stylistic flourishes that become far more than simply an attempt to suggest substance. Mishima must have been, if not a kindred spirit, at least a fascinating persona for Schrader to channel his own preoccupations through. The resulting film embraces the director’s favorite concepts: sexual ambiguity, obsession, repression and finally a rapturous release that feels both victorious and filed with regret. Via the titular four chapters, Schrader provides a portrait of Mishima that not chained to chronological fidelity—we witness the poet in his final hours and as a developing young boy, coming of age in a Japan as traditionalism is engulfed by capitalism. Plenty to work with and yet the picture also includes scenes from several of Mishima’s novels, enveloped by startlingly artificial backgrounds and providing a cunning blend of reality and fiction that appears to be true to Mishima’s own life. A moving score by Philip Glass aids the melodrama and doesn’t interfere with the more contemplative moments. With ‘Mishima,’ Schrader offers up a blatant tribute, a homily to the power of film—it’s a throbbing, living portrait that doesn’t lend itself well to a dry dissection but still feels poignantly measured. [B+]
“Light of Day” (1987)
If you’re compiling a catalogue of the most surprising cast lists of the ’80s, you could do worse than including “Light of Day” which stars Michael J. Fox, Joan Jett, Gena Rowlands and Michael McKean, and features Michael Rooker in a small role and, briefly, a very young Trent Reznor in a rival band. Basically it’s a rather overfamiliar story of a struggling rock band (The Barbusters), fronted by brother sister duo Patty (Jett) and Joe (Fox), as they come to terms with their level of success vs. commitment to the music, and with their difficult relationship with their straitlaced, religious parents. However, as shallow as the story is, the problems with the film run pretty deep: both Jett and Fox feel miscast. Fox is trying a bit too hard to slough off his teen idol image and while he’s very strong in establishing Joe as a good guy, and a good son who tries to hold everything together, he never convinces in the performance segments, still coming across as Marty McFly with a cigarette. But he outacts Jett who is lumbered with a very one-note role, and just doesn’t really have enough experience as an actress to invest it with anything other than what’s on the page at that exact moment. So it’s hard for us to care too much about her as she seemingly bounces around from being a devoted mom, who is also in a band, to pursuing her career at the expense of all else, to suddenly returning on hearing the mother she apparently loathes is sick, to enjoying a reconciliation that Gena Rowlands, as good as she always is, actually nearly sells. Schrader’s eye for the nuance and detail of the subcultures he explores is not nearly so sharp here either, and the whole film feels remarkably safe and rather anodyne, coming from him. There’s plenty of live performance, however, and depending on your tolerance/enjoyment of people asking you repeatedly “Are you ready to RAWK?” prior to launching into ’80s guitar tracks, some of it still works pretty well, notably the Bruce Springsteen-penned title song, and Jett’s own “This Means War.” [C]
“Patty Hearst” (1988)
Maybe the biggest surprise of our run through Paul Schrader’s back catalogue, “Patty Hearst,” his account of the high-profile heiress’ notorious kidnapping and subsequent “conversion” to terrorism, is a remarkably powerful, stylized piece of work anchored by an absolutely blistering turn from the late Natasha Richardson in the title role. Kicking off to a brilliantly unsettling track by the film’s composer Scott Johnson (“Mom, Dad”), it’s based on Hearst’s autobiography and so is told from her point of view, and certain choices made early on do seem a little self-exculpatory: when given the choice between freedom and joining the “revolution,” it is clearly implied that Hearst chooses the latter because she believes death, not release, is the alternative. Yet even with (sparing) use of voiceover, the film doesn’t cheat our sympathies like this too much. The extended middle section where Hearst, now in her Symbionese Liberation Army persona of Tania, spends months training and occasionally participating in the group’s increasingly ill-thought-through activities, never taking any of what must have been many escape opportunities, is presented here with its confounding illogic preserved. We don’t understand why she did it, but then again, it seems clear that neither did Hearst, in this film at least, and certainly the bumbling SLA and their muddled ideology is not presented as a force of irresistible brainwashing expertise. Richardson plays this fraught position masterfully, sometimes almost a ghoul, other times, a puppet parroting the words her captors-turned-“comrades” want to hear. and still other times, seemingly fully cognizant of who she is and what she’s about—defying all easy catch-all answers, it’s a characterization that is still somehow believable, moment-to-moment. The supporting cast are excellent too, from Ving Rhames’ charismatic leader Cinque, to William Forsythe and Frances Fisher as fanatic couple Teko and Yolanda, through to all the other SLA members (including Dana Delaney and Jodi Long). Directed with real flair by Schrader, taking an unusually non-realistic approach (many times the camera enters roofless rooms from the top; impossible staging and non-naturalistic lighting effects occasionally evoke something like “Bronson” in their self-consciousness), it also finds the director fairly restrained in mood. Oftentimes, Schrader takes small people and blows their lives into high drama, but perhaps the most impressive trick “Patty Hearst” plays on us is to take this famous, Kenneth Anger-ready splashy story and make it brilliantly, compellingly mundane. [B+]
“The Comfort of Strangers” (1990)
Less a movie than a prolonged exercise in the evocation of a sinister, deeply creepy mood, Schrader’s erotic thriller “The Comfort of Strangers” is a kind of superstar team-up, with Schrader directing a Harold Pinter script based on an Ian McEwan novel, and getting the pretty astounding cast of Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett to star. But it’s a film that also frustrates—toying with us in the windy, labyrinthine streets and ornate palazzos of Venice, and talkily foreshadowing for so long the sudden, gory finale that it’s something of an ordeal, perhaps accounting for our initial reluctance even to rewatch it. The brief outline runs: a young, impossibly attractive couple, experiencing something of a crisis in their relationship, visit Venice and become entangled in the lives of a mysterious older couple, and are alternately seduced and repelled by them, unaware of their darker purpose—but that implies both too much and too little about the film. Walken’s white-clad reptilian villain is among the actor’s most chillingly charming creations, but is simply too unknowable and enigmatic a creature for us to ever wholly comprehend his agenda. Similarly, the meandering plot, with its graphic sexual interludes and prolonged sequences of voiceover narration, really just ends up off-puttingly opaque. That’s not in itself a bad thing, but what does leave something of a sour taste in the mouth is the suspicion that the film, for all its talky, sexually explicit intellectualism, doesn’t have a lot to say, with even the Schrader trademark of a violent climax providing little focus. Macabre though it is, it seems again to be just another thing-that-happens, unmoored to any particular significance—which marks it apart from the catharsis that violence often provides elsewhere in the director’s work. Ultimately, the film is a good looking Chinese puzzle box, but when we finally get it open at the end, it’s disappointingly empty. [C-]
“Light Sleeper” (1992)
Usually bracketed together with “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo” in terms of being the third in Schrader’s loose thematic trilogy about the urban nighttime demi-monde and the scarred lives of the loners who populate it, “Light Sleeper” casts Willem Dafoe as the central character, this time an ex-junkie drug dealer working the high-end market for longtime associate Ann (Susan Sarandon). As a director, Schrader doesn’t have the brio of Scorsese and the film doesn’t ever scale the (admittedly dizzying) heights of that first masterpiece, but it does feel like by this stage Schrader as writer and director has matured and maybe mellowed enough to allow us some glimpse of humanity, even likeability in his protagonist. Dafoe’s John LaTour is a fuck up and a loser, but he is fundamentally decent, and we root for him as his better nature struggles with his circumstances. Dafoe himself takes a lot of the credit for making LaTour a sympathetic creation—he’s broken rather than perverse, and his cragged face and soulful eyes fill in a great deal of the character’s backstory, with hardly a word spoken. It’s also a terrific portrait of the people who, through sheer luck perhaps, survived an almost impossible experience (serious drug addiction), but now wander rather aimlessly through a life they didn’t ever really believe they were going to have—La Tour, until he collides with a lover from the past (Dana Delaney), is a ghost, haunting his former circle, but this time looking in from the outside. In terms of plot (the various seemingly inconsequential encounters that lead inexorably to an act of extreme, but possibly cathartic violence), the film may feel a little overfamiliar to anyone who knows either Scorsese’s picture or ‘Gigolo’ well, but there is a minor-key sadness here that is admirably restrained as opposed to the splashy salaciousness we might expect, and it marks “Light Sleeper” out as one of the most satisfying of Schrader’s directorial outings. With a protagonist who’s weary rather than wired, Dafoe almost feels like he’s playing against type (he’s the sanest guy in the room) and rises to the occasion accordingly, turning in one of his very finest, yet quietest performances. And yes, that is David Spade in a cameo credited as “theological cokehead.” [B+]
“Witch Hunt” (1994)
After catching up with this made for HBO curio, we can see why one of our staffers described it as being the best movie Robert Zemeckis never made. Oh, how much we wish it were actually made by Zemeckis, as its fantastical alternative 1950s Los Angeles setting, where magic is real and monsters roam around just like us humans trying to eke out a living, is fairly analogous to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” with a pinch of “Death Becomes Her.” There’s no doubt the world could’ve been better realized with the budgets and special effects prowess of those films, yet it is something of a charming misfire that shows Schrader dipping into alternate distribution and production paths for the soon-to-be cable behemoth. Though limited in scope by old fashioned techniques and attitude (which admittedly seems to have something of a thematic purpose behind it), “Witch Hunt,” still only available on VHS, does go for broke with its earnest metaphors, often to its detriment, but it’s never boring. Here, the red scare, McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist are hodgepodged in a story that sees H.P. Lovecraft (pleasantly underplayed by Dennis Hopper), a subtly named private detective, take on a politician looking to end magic in Hollywood. There’s a helluva lot more going on, none of it really worth explaining. Suffice to say the clever idea of magic being real, and the implications that would have on the world, are never given much more than a cursory, cheesy gloss. Even worse, the rules of the world and the magic, despite dual exposition dumps in the film’s opening (one a news flash, the other a dull voice-over from Hopper), are never made clear in a satisfying way. So, basically anything can happen whenever it’s most convenient to the plot, or good for a lame attempt at humor. As amusing as it may be to imagine big-shot movie producers hiring witches to conjure Shakespeare and Mark Twain to write great scripts, it kinda doesn’t work in a world where magic is real (hard to imagine cinema would even continue to exist in this world). Nonetheless, it’s a reminder of how far HBO has come and that Schrader is nothing if not willing to try different things, even if they don’t necessarily fit his sensibility and skills. [C-]
Hitting at the peak of the Elmore Leonard revival of the late 1990s, Schrader’s adaptation of the crime novelist’s “Touch,” was reasonably well-reviewed, but failed to capture the wider imagination in the way that contemporaries like “Get Shorty,” “Jackie Brown” and “Out Of Sight” did. But that’s understandable—the book is a black sheep among Leonard’s works, and has a similar status within Schrader’s resume, a curious little film, but one with much to recommend it. Christopher Walken stars as Bill Hill, a down-on-his-luck evangelist who decides that Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich), a young man purported to have a healing touch, is the person who could put him back on the map. He enlists an old friend, Lynn (Bridget Fonda) to get to Juvenal, but she falls for him, and things are further complicated by Catholic fanatic August Murray (Tom Arnold). It’s a rather bizarre cast and an even stranger film—whimsical, sincere, sharp and low-key. But given that religion has pervaded so much of his work, Schrader was undoubtedly the right person to direct the film; there’s a thoughtfulness and soulfulness to the film that other filmmakers would have buried under cynicism. On top of that, he has a strong enough feel for Leonard’s voice (the writer praised him for, essentially, “shooting the book”) that it’s consistently funny, especially with Walken, Fonda, and even Arnold and Ulrich giving strong turns (plus fun side-characters like Gina Gershon and Janeane Garafolo knocking around the picture too). It’s unruly and a touch unsatisfying, but one of the director’s more interesting late-period pictures. [B]
One of Schrader’s later era jewels, 1997 drama “Affliction” is not an easy one to sit through. Like “The Place Beyond The Pines” recently, this is a fathers-and-sons story of legacy, sins and what we pass down to our children. But arguably, Schrader’s darker and bleaker film is more emotionally brutal and bruising, as this tale shows the tragic consequences of passed down violence, alcoholism, and physical, emotional and verbal abuse. Playing right in Schrader’s wheelhouse of men whose latent violence can be unleashed when they are faced with undeniable evidence of their emasculation and powerlessness, Nick Nolte plays a sheriff in a small town with too much time on his hands who has plenty of time to reflect on his nightmarish childhood. Inheriting his father’s alcoholism, history has repeated itself and he is also distant and callous to his wife and daughter who now despise him. While pursuing a murder case, Nolte is reunited with his monster of a father played by James Coburn and his younger brother (Schrader regular Willem Dafoe) who escaped his father’s abuse at a young age. The return of his abusive despot of a father for the funeral awakens a crippling emotional pain that only brings Nolte’s sheriff character closer to rock bottom and self-destruction. Searing and depressing as all get out, “Affliction” is not for the faint of heart and if you can make it out of that film emotionally unscarred, you’re made of much stronger stuff than us. But Schrader deserves props for taking such and unforgiving, uncompromising and unsparing look at such weighty subject matter, and he earns the fantastic performances he gets—Coburn rightfully won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor playing literally one of the most cruel and inhuman fathers ever committed to the big screen. [A-]
“Forever Mine” (1999)
This is Schrader at his goofiest and most earnestly overwrought, like if his script for Brian De Palma‘s hauntingly perverse “Obsession” was repurposed as a gooey television soap opera. “Forever Mine” is set in the ’70s (somebody references Watergate almost as an aside) in Miami, where a pool boy (Joseph Fiennes) has an affair with the wife (Gretchen Mol) of a shady New York attorney (Ray Liotta). The attorney seeks revenge by shooting and then burying Fiennes alive. Fiennes returns years later to exact his revenge and, seemingly, rekindle his romance. From that plot description, “Forever Mine” sounds like perfect Schrader material: sex, violence, obsession, hazy photography. But a lot of the film is just embarrassing. The first half of the movie is told via a clunky framing device wherein Fiennes, who is now sporting an amateurish prosthetic scar over much of his face and speaking in an unconvincing Cuban accent that suggests Al Pacino‘s Scarface with a learning disability, recounts the events that led him here: the affair, him following Mol (who spends much of the movie topless) to New York, his prison time and the attempted murder. Again, that would be kind of cool, if it wasn’t slammed together with all the subtlety of paperback romance novel. The second half of the movie is just as unintentionally hilarious, underscored by a phonily sweeping score by Angelo Badalamenti, with all sorts of forced encounters wherein neither Mol, Liotta, nor anyone else can seem to recognize Fiennes. Or place his terrible accent. (At one point Liotta growls at Fiennes, “Are you crazy? Nobody talks like that.”) It’s supposed to be a romantic revenge movie, but its self-seriousness and sluggish pacing means that no cathartic kick can be taken from Fiennes’ limp scheming. (Although there is a pretty good murder sequence set in a tanning salon that’s unfortunately punctured by a terrible pun). “Forever Mine” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1999 and had a halfhearted theatrical release three years later that virtually no one saw or paid attention to. It should have stayed buried. Forever. [D]
“Auto Focus” (2002)
Based on a nonfiction book by “Zodiac” author and former cartoonist Robert Graysmith and overseen by premiere cinematic biographers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt”), “Auto Focus” is an unflinching look at the life and nightmarish demise of Bob Crane, the charismatic former star of “Hogan’s Heroes.” As portrayed in a fearless and unflinching performance by Greg Kinnear, Crane was a world-class creep: a noted sex addict and S&M enthusiast whose life turned downright hellish following the end of the series, thanks largely to his relationship with a half-Indian electronics maven John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). The title refers to Crane’s fascination with photography specifically for the purpose of recording his sexual exploits, which put him into Carpenter’s orbit (with gruesome irony Crane was bludgeoned to death with the leg of a camera’s tripod, which Schrader, a noted film freak must have found fascinating, considering it as a kind of riff on the murder weapon in Michael Powell‘s infamous “Peeping Tom.”) In fact, “Auto Focus” plays like a smorgasbord of Schrader obsessions: sex, violence, a dangerously pathological main character, lingering mystery and the tragic intersection of Hollywood and real-life horror. The result is a terrific movie, but one that makes you want to take a shower immediately after watching; it’s hard to not feel like a layer of grime coats the whole thing. Appreciated by critics, it was largely rejected by audiences for this very reason; Schrader has never been a director fond of moderation but this might have pushed things too far, especially given the movie’s bouncy, upbeat marketing campaign complete with “groovy” seventies iconography. (There are a number of instances in the film when images, both still and on film, are blurred out or obscured, possibly because they are too pornographic for the R-rated film.) Kinnear is unimpeachable and Dafoe is just as good as Crane’s chum, possible lover and likely killer (Carpenter was retried for the case 10 years later and uneasily acquitted) and in all, “Auto Focus” is a brilliant portrayal of a fractured male psyche, told elegantly and efficiently, that serves as a late-career gem for Schrader. Sadly, it’s such a tough watch that it’s unlikely the film will ever get properly re-appraised or canonized, but considering how hard it is for us to shake more than ten years after the release (and many showers later), we rank it right up there. [A-]
“Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” (2005)
In assessing Schrader’s “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” you kind of have to compare it to the version that was made from the ashes of his original take: “Exorcist: The Beginning,” which received a much wider theatrical release. To explain: Schrader directed an Africa-set prequel to “The Exorcist” detailing first demonic counter of Father Merrin (played in the original film Max Von Sydow and here by Stellan Skarsgard), even though this is fairly well-covered ground in both the original film and its totally bananas follow-up. Schrader submitted a nearly completed version, but Warner Bros and Morgan Creek found Schrader’s elliptical meditation on the nature of evil, co-scripted by genre great William Wisher and “Alienist” author Caleb Carr, at odds with the punchy scare-fest they were looking for. Almost all of Schrader’s footage was scrapped and “Deep Blue Sea” director Renny Harlin came in to reshoot practically the entire movie (even some original cast members, like Gabriel Mann, were swapped out for different actors). Respective takes on the same sequences showcase the directors’ different approaches: when a man who collects butterflies commits suicide, Harlin executes it like it’s “Return of the Living Dead,” with the pinned butterflies fluttering back to life. In Schrader’s, the man shoots himself, and as his body slumps to the ground, his clenched fist opens up, revealing a butterfly tucked within. (Harlin’s version also cornered the market, pre-“Birdemic,” on poorly animated CGI crows.) But while genre fans were anxious to see Schrader’s version and eager to dub it a near-classic, it’s just not very good, and in some respects fails on even the basic premise that Harlin’s inferior movie delivers. While Schrader’s version at least hints at the tone of the original (‘The Beginning’ plays like one of “The Mummy” movies, except with a stillborn baby covered in maggots) and Merrin’s time in World War II has more nuance, much of his movie is a draggy bore, despite Skarsgard’s complete commitment and Schrader’s imaginative photography (it was shot by Vittorio Storaro). And for what is ostensibly Schrader’s first horror movie, it’s oddly light on the sex and violence that the filmmaker has lovingly embraced in almost all of his previous movies. So while it’s fun to compare and contrast the two competing versions of “The Exorcist” prequel, neither one holds a candle to the original; Schrader’s might be slightly more interesting, but any more praise than that borders on blasphemy. [C+]
“The Walker” (2007)
“One day everything is fine, the next you’re in an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ “ quips Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin) in Paul Schrader’s “The Walker,” a cousin of sorts to “American Gigolo” and “Light Sleeper,” films in which the lead character is in the employ of wealthy or powerful women. This time around, it’s Carter Page (Woody Harrelson), a gay Southern charmer who hangs off the arm of political wives, escorting them around town when their husbands can’t make various social events. Life is nothing more than black tie gatherings and weekly card games with Abigail, Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall) until murder rears its ugly head. Carter soon learns the lesson that are no such things as friends in Washington, and realizes to save himself he’ll have to choose between being disloyal or dishonest. Yet, despite a setting that promises a sharp, taut little thriller, “The Walker” is largely dull and unengaging. Schrader, who also wrote the script, wants to have it both ways, presenting a murder mystery/whodunnit, and also a character study of the empty, poisoned individuals of the Washington elite, but he can never bring the two halves together. The murder plot is as convoluted as it is uninteresting (something to with investments and medical companies and testifying before congress) while the character revelations are hardly incisive (shocker, people in Washington are selfish, phoney and motivated to secure their own ends!). Whatever the film’s more serious intentions might be, they are continually and seriously undercut by the truly brutal score by Anne Dudley, a cringeworthy mix of SOFT FM bloozy guitar licks and Cinemax-at-3-AM horns. It feels ripped out of straight-to-VHS movies from the ‘80s, but not in a fashion that feels knowing (the Bryan Ferry tunes feel wildly out of place as well). But it is partially redeemed by a cast that deserves far better than the material they’re given. Scott-Thomas, Tomlin and Bacall are great, sharing warm chemistry with a very good Harrelson, whose performance as Carter is worn with ease and comfort (though why Schrader takes an actor as interesting as frequent cohort Willem Dafoe and saddles him with the cuckolded husband role that barely amounts to more than a cameo, is beyond us), and Carter’s relationship with his boyfriend is similarly well-drawn. But for all the ingredients Schrader pulls together from his earlier, more successful films, he simply can’t find the right temperature to cook them at here. [C-]
“Adam Resurrected” (2008)
There’s high camp, and then there’s “Adam Resurrected,” Schrader’s perplexing adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s novel about a very particular sort of Holocaust survivor. Suave German Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) rules a small psychiatric hospital, spending his days sweet-talking the women and salaciously seducing the beautiful nurse (Ayelet Zurer), even while he’s haunted by the memories of how he survived the war. Were it not for the cruel kindness of an SS officer (Willem Dafoe), Stein would be dead. Instead, he sees himself as something worse, something less human: he spent his days during the Holocaust avoiding the gas chambers by acting as this soldier’s personal dog, forced to crawl on his hands and knees and live in his office, attached to a leash and eating out of a bowl. What’s telling is the knotty characterization of his kinks, as he can’t get aroused unless his lover pretends to be a dog, yet he teaches a mute runaway boy to also act like a dog, in a manner that’s meant to be more “benevolent.” Goldblum adopts a fairly questionable German accent for the role, adding to the unreality of this peculiar psyche being explored. It’s hard to know what to make of this unusual stew, which is oddly entertaining in spite of its strangeness. It’s more in-tune with late Jodorowsky, particularly “Santa Sangre,” which also mixed sexual perversion with a circus setting (Stein is a former circus performer), complicating the power dynamic implicit in any relationship, sexual or otherwise. Weirdly kinky, if not entirely fully formed, there’s the sense “Adam Resurrected” has no idea how to present a sobering view of such existentially despairing situations, and never completes the journey from fascinating curiosity to great film; Goldblum’s bizarre accent and Walken-esque body language as a highly unlikely ladykiller provides the greatest distance, though there’s the sense a re-edit would have been able to find the narrative within this high-pitched sexual tragedy. [B-]
Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” is in limited release now and available on VOD. Agree or disagree with our summation of Schrader’s directorial career? Any film that deserves more love than it got? Let us know below.
–Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Erik McClanahan, Mark Zhuravsky, Oliver Lyttelton