The Films of Paul Schrader
Cat People (October 26/11)
Based on Jacques Tourneur's 1942 thriller, Cat People follows Nastassja Kinski's Irena Gallier as she arrives in New Orleans to meet (and stay with) her biological brother (Malcolm McDowell's Paul) - with problems ensuing as Paul mysteriously disappears one night and a panther begins attacking local residents. Filmmaker Paul Schrader, working from Alan Ormsby's screenplay, opens the proceedings with a dull prologue that is, in the final analysis, indicative of everything that's wrong with Cat People, as the needlessly avant-garde introduction paves the way for an off-kilter drama that boasts few horror-specific attributes. The pervasively uneventful, slow-moving atmosphere is perpetuated by the ongoing emphasis on Irena's dull exploits, with, in particular, the character's growing fascination with a local zoo (and its hunky head zookeeper) ensuring that the film's midsection is often nothing short of interminable. And although Schrader has admittedly peppered the movie with a handful of striking moments - eg the grisly fate of Ed Begley Jr's character - Cat People's style-over-substance sensibilities ultimately cement its place as an art-house experiment gone horribly wrong.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Light of Day
The Comfort of Strangers
Touch (February 9/08)
Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, Touch casts Skeet Ulrich as Juvenal - a former monk whose quiet existence is shattered after it becomes clear that he possesses the ability to heal with just a touch. Juvenal's supernatural abilities catch the interest of Christopher Walken's sleazy Bill Hill, who sends in an associate (Bridget Fonda's Lynn) to get close to the presumed miracle worker. Problems ensue after Lynn finds herself falling for Juvenal, and it's not long before the couple find themselves confronted with a whole host of oddball characters (including Tom Arnold's militant fanatic and Gina Gershon's smarmy television personality). Though writer/director Paul Schrader has infused the film with a number of subplots and supporting characters, Touch - saddled with an almost distractingly low-key vibe - never entirely manages to capture (and hold) the viewer's interest for more than a few minutes at a time. Schrader's attempts at satirizing a variety of topics - including religion and daytime talk-shows - generally fall flat, as the filmmaker has infused such moments with a pointed, distinctly heavy-handed sensibility that ultimately negates their effectiveness (ie the lack of subtlety becomes increasingly difficult to overlook). Stripped of its myriad of superfluous elements, however, Touch fares surprisingly well as a charming little romance between two disparate characters - yet even this aspect of the story slowly-but-surely loses its appeal as the film essentially runs out of steam once it hits the one-hour mark. The end result is an effort that starts to vanish from one's memory minutes after it concludes, despite the inclusion of several undeniably positive attributes (ie the strong work from Ulrich and Fonda).
Affliction (August 15/02)
Though Affliction, which follows a small-town sheriff (Nick Nolte's Wade Whitehouse) as he investigates a killing and confronts various familial issues, isn't quite what one would consider good, the film is worth mention due to the fantastic performances by Nolte and James Coburn. Playing father and son, the two men don't really look at all like one another, but the pairing works because of the fearful chemistry between them. Nolte is a large man, perhaps bigger than Coburn, but his character is nevertheless afraid of his aging father and indeed, tends to cower in his presence. Another great performance arrives courtesy of Willem Dafoe, playing Wade's brother. His character had the good sense to leave the small town as soon as he was able, and seems to be a relatively normal guy. Dafoe, in one of his few non-weirdo roles, excels as this outsider who's able to objectively look at the situation and speak candidly about what should happen.
But despite some great performances, Affliction never really takes off. The plodding pace, exacerbated by the lack of a plot, certainly doesn't help. Though it's based on a novel by Russell Banks, the movie feels as though it would have worked better as a short film (ie there's just not enough content to fill up over two hours of screen time.) While the movie does effectively paint a picture of this small, close-knit town, Affliction never becomes involving enough to sustain one's wholehearted interest from start to finish. And though Nolte's performance is certainly one of his best, the character never becomes one that the viewer is able to truly sympathize with. Wade's irrational behavior, which has remained beneath the surface but is now out in the open, becomes increasingly more erratic as the film progresses, which makes it difficult for us to care what happens to the man.
Still, movies with performances this good don't tend to come along very often. It's just too bad the story surrounding them isn't quite up to their level.
Forever Mine (August 4/02)
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, Forever Mine is a contemporary approach to a '50s melodrama - as the film boasts many of the attributes that one has come to associate with such efforts (including an over-the-top storyline and an intensely passionate longing between the two leads). The film, which details the love triangle that ensues between a prominent politician (Ray Liotta's Mark), his fetching wife (Gretchen Mol's Ella), and a scrappy cabana boy (Joseph Fiennes' Manual), proves to be surprisingly engaging; surprisingly because it's not exactly a fresh idea for a screenplay. But in the hands of a pro like Schrader, the movie becomes more than just a '50s throwback. It doesn't hurt that the two leads, Fiennes and Mol, have genuine chemistry with one another. It's hard not to root for the two, especially considering how sleazy Liotta's character is.
While the film takes a while to get going, there's a certain point at which plot twists come fast and furious. We're allowed a chance to get to know and like these characters before Schrader starts screwing with their lives. Obviously, this is effective because we're at the point where we like these people and want to see them get what they want. Liotta's character is the exception, of course, and in the hands of such a talented actor, this is someone we come to hate (in a sort of love-to-hate-him kind of way).
The only time the film really falters is in its conclusion. Schrader allows all three characters to participate in a showdown of sorts, but refuses to divulge a key element in the ending. This is essentially his way of telling us that we've wasted our time by investing our emotions in these characters, which proves to be incredibly frustrating. Still, the movie's generally entertaining and contains a trio of fantastic performances.
Auto Focus (September 18/02)
Auto Focus casts Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane, the Hogan's Heroes star whose addiction to porn led to his downfall - with the movie primarily detailing Crane's friendship with an off-kilter electronics expert named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). Paul Schrader seems the perfect choice to helm this seedy tale, as the film deals primarily with the themes he's spent the majority of his career exploring. Though it's ostensibly a biopic based on the unfortunate life of Bob Crane, Auto Focus is really about addiction. But instead of booze or drugs, Crane's addiction is sex - a fixation that seems to stem from his loneliness and despair. In the first half of the film, Crane is a man who prefers dealing with people on a more superficial level. He's more comfortable putting on a phony smile and shaking hands with fans, until he hooks up with Carpenter and begins exploring his darker side. Auto Focus is very well done all around, from the direction to the acting, but it never quite becomes the superb piece of work it wants to be. Like most films that deal with addiction, Auto Focus eventually becomes a one-note look at the central character's downward spiral. But before it reaches that point, the film offers up a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of a sitcom star. Crane is an odd character, in that he's not content with enjoying the success he's presumably worked so hard to get. It's not long after he starts Hogan's Heroes that he begins drumming at seedy bars, and soon after that he begins drinking and having all-night sex parties. Crane's relationship with Carpenter seems to be the driving force behind his decent into the world of amateur porn (in fact, since video cameras were so scarce back than, Crane and Carpenter are essentially porn pioneers). By the time Crane comes the realization that his secret life is starting to seep into his day-to-day existence, it's too late for him to stop. Schrader infuses the film with a sense of style that matches the consistently evolving tone, which allows for an interesting visual experience at any rate. The first half of the film, with Crane's burgeoning success and fame, is bright and colorful - just like the period it occurs in. But as Crane begins to slide deeper and deeper into the world of porn, Schrader adopts a grainier look and employs the use of a handheld camera - both of which give the movie a grittier, documentary-like feel. However, Schrader's directorial choices would mean nothing if both Kinnear and Dafoe gave lackluster performances, which they decidedly do not. Kinnear, in particular, is quite impressive as this man who finds himself becoming more and more distant from the people who love him and from his career. Like Nicolas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas, Crane is someone who can't necessarily control his addiction but the innocence and vulnerability is always there. Likewise, Dafoe is excellent playing yet another creepy weirdo; after his work as a normal guy in Schrader's Affliction, it seemed as though Dafoe might finally be ready to abandon the goofball characters that made him famous. Not quite, but there's no denying that he gives an amazing performance. Auto Focus certainly isn't a bad movie - the acting alone makes it worth checking out - but it is a disappointment, especially coming from someone like Paul Schrader. Still, it's mostly an interesting look at the dark side of fame.
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
Click here for review.
Dying of the Light
Dog Eat Dog
First Reformed (July 13/18)
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, First Reformed follows Ethan Hawke's Reverend Ernst Toller as he begins to struggle with his faith after enduring a series of somewhat calamitous events. Schrader has infused First Reformed with a deliberate, methodical sensibility that essentially hooks the viewer from the movie's opening frames, with the engrossing atmosphere consistently heightened by Hawke's subdued yet thoroughly captivating turn as the somewhat tortured central character (ie the actor's work here undoubtedly ranks near the top of his list of accomplishments as a performer). And although there's no overlooking the feeling that Schrader himself is grappling with his own issues towards religion and faith, which does ensure the characters occasionally come off as mouthpieces rather than fully-formed figures, First Reformed progresses into a more and more compelling midsection that focuses intently on Hawke's protagonist and his growing inner conflict (ie the movie essentially morphs into an engrossing character study). The increasingly dark and downright sinister bent of the picture's narrative paves the way for a riveting third act, and it's clear, too, that the whole thing ends on a gripping and unexpectedly emotional note that's just about perfect - which ultimately does cement First Reformed's place as a stellar entry within Schrader's admittedly rocky body of work.