Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ranking Paul Schrader

One of my most anticipated films of 2018 is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed – which just opened in Toronto a few weeks ago, but I’ll have to wait until it expands a little bit. In preparation for that film, I decided I’d go back and watch or re-watch every film Schrader directed before First Reformed – and then I would write reviews for each and every one of them. I was all the way up until Adam Resurrected in 2008 – when my USB drive encountered a washing machine, and while I was able to save almost all of my files, the one with the reviews was lost. Re-writing 15 reviews, written over a three week span just wasn’t possible. So instead, please indulge me with an in-depth ranking of all 21 of Schrader’s films. I am unsure of the top spot to be honest – its seems perhaps premature – but it is my gut feeling, so I’m think I’m right.
21. Forever Mine (1999)
Forever Mine is one of those films many great auteurs have on their resume – the one where pretty much everything goes wrong, and you kind of wonder if the director has lost it. Schrader’s film mixes element of melodrama and noir, in a story where half takes place in 1974 and the other half in 1987. In the earlier time period, Joseph Fiennes is a young Miami cabana boy who has an affair with the rich wife (Gretchen Mol) of a corrupt New York politician (Ray Liotta) – and then follows them to New York. We know from the start of the movie things don’t go well – as in 1987, Fiennes is horribly scared, going by a different name, and headed back to New York for love and revenge. You can kind of imagine someone like Douglas Sirk making some of the overheated dialogue work in one of his films, but it completely undoes the cast here. Fiennes is horribly miscast as the cabana boy, and even worse as the violent drug kingpin he becomes. Mol doesn’t change at all, but her only job is to be doe eyed. Only Liotta emerges unscathed – because he basically just has to be in angry Ray Liotta mode the whole time. The film is pretty embarrassing for all involved – it looks and sounds awful, and while it contains hints at Schrader’s pet themes of violence and the past inflicting its pain on the present, it does so in the most obvious and overwrought way. It’s hard to imagine this much talent making this bad a film.
20. Witch Hunt (1994)
Out of all of Schrader’s films, this is the one the only one I would say is anonymous – sure, Forever Mine is way (way) worse, but you see Schrader in there, somewhere. But Witch Hunt was a strange choice for Schrader to make – a HBO sequel to their own hit movie, mixing magic and noir together, but recasting the lead role with Dennis Hopper – who is asked to be the straight man in a film full of craziness. The film is basically trying to be Chinatown, with magic – and throw in McCarthy-ism as well, with a rampaging Senator (Eric Bogosian) complain about all of Hollywood coming under the influence of magic. I wouldn’t say Witch Hunt is a bad movie per se – it isn’t good, but it’s watchable – but it is also completely and totally forgettable, and seems disconnected to everything else Schrader has done. Schrader never played nice with Hollywood – never seemed to take a pay cheque only gig. This one is a weird sort of exception, as I cannot figure out why he made it.
19. Dying of the Light (2014)
Schrader and stars Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin all disowned the movie – which was taken away from Schrader, recut and remixed – and according the cinematographer, they didn’t even let him do the proper color correction on the film either. So, it’s safe to say that the film doesn’t look or sound precisely like Schrader wanted it to, so I suppose many will give him a pass for this one. Yet, he’s still responsible for some of the downright awful dialogue, and allowing Cage to go wildly over the top in ways that don’t make much sense (I’m more willing to give Schrader a pass on the plotting of the movie – which cuts corners, because perhaps his movie would be longer). The most frustrating thing about the film – other than its complete mediocre-ness – is that there is a great idea at the core of the film, in which Cage plays a CIA agent, who has been stuck behind a desk for years who finds out he’s dying – and heads back into the field to find the one terrorist only he thinks is still alive, that got away 22 years ago – who is also dying. The idea of these two combatants, who even as they are dying, cannot let go of the past is pure Schrader – and I can see him making a hell of a movie out of it. This isn’t it – and while we can blame the studio for part of that, I don’t think it was entirely their fault.
18. Touch (1997)
Schrader is not the writer/director I would most want to see adapting Elmore Leonard – both are great, but wildly different, as Schrader is obsessed with morality, and Leonard basically doesn’t care. What’s interesting about Touch though is that at its center is a sincere character – Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) – a former monk, who can heal people with his Touch, and has the wounds of Jesus. He’s plopped in the middle of a film filled with typical Leonard schemers, lowlifes and conmen – Christopher Walken as a former crooked preacher, who is still crooked, but no longer preaches, Tom Arnold as a Catholic, who believes the modern Church is too modern, Gina Gershon as a trashy TV talk show host, etc. There is also Walken’s former underling (Bridget Fonda) – who he enlists to get close to Juvenal, who ends falling in love with him. The film doesn’t really work – for one thing, Ulrich is too much a dull, blank slate (that may have been the point, but it doesn’t make him more interesting to watch) to hold the movie together and for another, Tom Arnold isn’t able to pull off the film’s most complex character, which basically sinks it. And yet, while Touch is undeniably a failure, it’s an interesting one. I still don’t think Schrader should have adapted Leonard – and there is a reason why this isn’t considered one of Schrader bests – and the novel isn’t considered one of Leonard’s best, I just don’t think it’s possible to make this story work. But its fun seeing some of the actors, and Schrader, give it their all.
17. Light of Day (1987)
Light of Day is both a film that has been properly rated as lesser Schrader, and yet still deserves a better fate than it’s gotten thus far. The film isn’t available for streaming anywhere, and never got a Blu-Ray or even a DVD release (I saw a rather poor version on YouTube). This is a working class film in which a brother and sister duo (Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett) work in Cleveland, while also playing in a rock band at night in the bars, as Jett tries to raise her son, and they both clash with their religious mother (Gena Rowlands). The film never really gets over the miscasting of Fox and Jett – Fox is fine in the dialogue heavy scenes, but isn’t able to carry the weight of the quieter scenes where he has to carry the burden of his family, and is counted on (as many Schrader characters are) to do a lot with no dialogue – he just looks like he’s staring off into space. Jett has a raw energy – and is great on stage of course, but struggles if she has to string together more than a few lines of dialogue. The other problem is that Schrader, coming off of the most visually adventurous film he’s ever made (Mishima) swings so far back in the other direction, and has made a dull, uninteresting film to look at. And yet – despite all of those problems – I wish Light of Day could be more widely seen today – there are currents of Schrader’s pet themes throughout, and Fox and Jett do have moments that work well. In particular though, it does contain a brilliant performance by Rowlands as their religious mother – if George C. Scott in Hardcore is Schrader’s father, then this is his mother, and the character is key to Schrader as a whole. Sure, the film isn’t great – but it’s interesting, and we should at least be able to watch a better version of this than we can currently.
16. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
Hiring Paul Schrader to direct an Exorcist movie was an inspired choice for the movie studio – who for some reason didn’t actually want a Paul Schrader movie. Schrader was fired, replaced by Renny Harlin, who reshot the whole movie – released as The Exorcist: The Beginning. When that tanked, the studio gave Schrader a few dollars to finish his version – the result being the awkwardly titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. It would be divine justice if Schrader’s version was a masterpiece – but in reality, it’s easy to see why the studio didn’t like Schrader’s version – its low on horror and blood, and is really, a long exploration of faith lost and found, and guilt and redemption – classic Schrader themes – with some horror elements thrown in. The movie is better than I remembered it being – it’s actually quite fascinating to see Stellan Skarsgaard as Father Merrin, reeling from his choice during WWII, and the way the film draws parallels between the Nazis in the opening, and the British colonists in Africa for the rest of the film. The special effects aren’t great (they gave him almost no money to do them) – and the two actors who were replaced really are quite bad in the film. And, the film is too long, and not at all scary. Yet, I still found it interesting throughout – even if a little slow. The lesson here is simple – if you don’t want a Paul Schrader film, don’t hire Paul Schrader – this is a Paul Schrader film, for better or worse.
15. The Canyons (2013)
The period between Adam Resurrected (2008) and this represents the longest break between directing efforts of Schrader’s career – and you can tell fairly early in The Canyons that Schrader is a little bitter and angry about that. The film was written by Bret Easton Ellis – and honestly, I’m not sure it’s a great fit for Schrader (I’d rather see Brian De Palma’s version) – but while you could dismiss The Canyons as two older white men yell at millennials (there is certainly an element of that here) – it’s remains a fascinating film about Hollywood – and how the movie industry is dying. It’s also a reminder of just why Lindsay Lohan became a movie star in the first place – she has an undeniable presence in the film – the type that really cannot be taught. Her co-star, porn star James Deen, making his legitimate movie debut (before all the allegations against him came out – which colored this movie somewhat, since we know he’s an abuser playing an abuser) – isn’t as good. Still, this erotic thriller has some good moments, and is fascinating from beginning to end – this time through was certainly an improvement for me – although, I don’t think I’d watch it a third time.
14. Cat People (1982)
Schrader’s first foray into studio horror was this 1982 remake in name only of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic Cat People. As was true of Dominion, Schrader was probably hired to deliver a pure horror film – and instead delivered some kind of weird crossbreed of his signature, art house style, with the excess of 1980s horror – there aren’t particularly a lot of bloody scenes in Cat People – but when they hit, they are bloody as hell. For the most part though, this is a weird, surreal art film – with a great performance by Natasha Kinski at its core, and Malcolm McDowell clearly having a blast as her brother – with the pair of them being part of an ancient species that take on animal form after sex, who won’t turn back until they’ve killed – unless they have sex with each other. Yes, it’s weird, it’s strange – there is a lot of trippy imagery, a great David Bowie song, and lots of strangeness. It doesn’t all necessarily work – but then how could you possibly expect a film like this to work completely?
13. Adam Resurrected (2008)
Adam Resurrected is a rarer thing than a great Holocaust film – it is a completely different Holocaust film from any other I’ve seen. That it is not wholly successful shouldn’t be overly surprising – it’s hugely ambitious, jumps around in time from different parts of the 1930s-1960s, all centered on Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) – a German Jew, who was a vaudeville performer before the war, had to act like a dog for the Commander of the death camps (Willem Dafoe) during the war in order to survive – even as he watches his own family being marched to the their deaths – and then spends parts of the 1960s in an Israeli mental hospital, dealing with his survivors remorse and shame for the way he behaved. Goldblum has rarely been asked to deliver such a complex performance – the man is almost a meme in most of his roles – and spotty accent aside, he delivers a brilliant performance as this man. Schrader mostly plays the film straight – which hurts it at times, because the film has some comic moments dying to get out, and the various allusions and metaphors are about as subtle as sledgehammer. Still, he avoids the trap that apparently Jerry Lewis didn’t with his infamous The Day the Clown Died – and made a respectful, fascinating film about a performer during the Holocaust. It doesn’t all work, but you have to admire the effort.
12. The Walker (2007)
A kind of unofficial quasi-sequel/remake of Schrader’s Americano Gigolo, Woody Harrelson stars as Carter Page III – the only son of a wealthy Virginian family of politicians, who basically lives off his family’s wealth, and spends his time with the rich wives of powerful men in Washington, D.C. Page is openly gay in a town that still views that as dishonorable – but he does keep that part of his life under wraps. One of the wealthy women he has befriended uses him as a cover when she goes to meet her lover – and when that lover ends up dead, Page becomes the prime suspect. The film is very much of the Bush era (the word Bush is never uttered, but there is talk about “this administration being horrible” – wait a decade people, it will get worse). The film is ultimately a character study more than anything else – especially in the way it portrays Page as a man who discovers just how loyal he is – and how loyal everyone else is. He is tired of hearing about what a great man his father was – when he knows the truth about him. By the end, he proves, to himself if no one else, that’s he’s better than that. The murder plot is overly convoluted, and takes up too much time in the movie – especially since it’s pretty clear Schrader is just using it as a device. Yet, the film is still fascinating and interesting – an era that is only a decade behind us, but feels so far away.
11. Dog Eat Dog (2016)
One of the reasons I love to do these re-watches of an entire directors work is because occasionally you run across a film like Dog Eat Dog – a film I pretty much dismissed two years ago, but had an absolute blast watching this time around. From its candy colored opening, ending in horror, to the strange end in which Nicolas Cage does an extended Humphrey Bogart impression for reasons, Schrader’s nihilistic, coked up crime thriller is pure sadistic joy. It focuses on three ex-cons (Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook) who get involved in a kidnapping scheme – that of course goes horribly wrong. The film is vile and violent from beginning to end – and purposefully so. Cage doesn’t exactly reign it in for the performance, but he isn’t quite so manic this time around. Dafoe is even better – a somewhat pathetic and weak willed psychopath, who talks in therapy speak, even as he continues to do horrible things. Schrader goes for broke here, and gets there, in a highly entertaining, completely crazy film. The teenage me would have watched this 10 times.
10. The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
The Comfort of Strangers is one of the strangest movies of Schrader’s career – Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay based on a book by Ian McEwan, and the sensibilities of the three very different artists come together in one, very strange mixture. A British couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett) are vacationing in Venice to try and reignite their relationship – only to fall victim to the strange charms of Christopher Walken, and later his girlfriend, Helen Mirren. The film is bizarre – a thriller that is more unsettling than truly intense. Walken is great in every scene – it’s one of his best performances – and yet by the end, you still have no idea who he is. The film is absolutely beautiful to look at – and completely understands Venice, where you have no idea where you are at any time. By the end, I wanted something more – an ending of some kind that the film deliberately does not give you. There is a difference between satisfying ambiguity, and frustrating ambiguity, and this walks the very fine line. I think this may improve on repeat viewings (which is why it sucks it’s not available from streaming).
9. Patty Hearst (1988)
The Patty Hearst story is infamous, and a strange one for Schrader to take on – although I think he does it as good as it can be done. Schrader wastes almost no time in the film’s opening scenes – she is kidnapped quickly, and then he places us right alongside Hearst during her ordeal where she spends weeks blindfolded inside dark closets, with people talking to her, but her only half grasping who they are or what they want. This is the best part of the movie – it’s deliberately disorienting for the audience, and it’s great. The film does sag in the middle section – after most of the SLA members are killed, and she’s on the run with two of them (played by William Forsythe and Frances Fisher). The ending of the movie is great though – and snaps Heart into clearer focus. For most of the movie, Natasha Richardson played Hearst as either terrified or terrifyingly blank – it’s only in those closing scenes where she is allowed to be a real person – a real character – because she’s finally not being terrorized. Yes, this is the version of the story Hearst would want told – but that doesn’t make it any less of an accomplishment.
8. American Gigolo (1980)
Schrader was somehow able to smuggle in a Bresson-like study in loneliness into a mainstream movie about a male prostitute, with a surface sheen that makes the film look like a proto-typical example of 1980s excess. Richard Gere has perhaps never been better than he is here – playing Julian, who takes pride in his work – and is really very good at it. But he also has an inflated sense of himself, that will eventually comes crashing down on him as he is the lead suspect in a murder, and all of a sudden all his fancy, rich clients and friends want nothing to do with him. If there is a problem with the movie it is twofold – for one, Schrader clearly doesn’t really care about the murder mystery – he solves it in an almost throwaway line, and second the Lauren Hutton character isn’t very clearly defined – so you’re not sure why she does what she ultimately does. Still, though, this is a great Schrader film disguised as something far more unseemly.
7. Auto Focus (2002)
I’m not sure Schrader has ever made a sadder film that Auto Focus – the story of Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) who became a sitcom star with the lead role in Hogan’s Heroes, and then started a long, slow descent into sex addiction, which ultimately led to his murder (the real life facts, which may not quite match here, are not as important to what Schrader is doing). Kinnear is perfect as Crane – his regular, affable niceness makes his descent all the more unlikely, and Willem Dafoe is just as good as John Carpenter – the man eventually charged and tried (but ultimately acquitted) of the murder – he’s a sad sack hanger on who loves Crane, and cannot bare to be without him. The period detail on the film is perfect, and the long sad trajectory of the descent of addiction here feels real and painful. The film was pretty much ignored when it first came out – and its reputation hasn’t grown much since – but it deserves to.
6. Light Sleeper (1992)
Light Sleeper is a sad film about the people who stay at the party too long, who know it’s time to leave, but cannot quite seem to be able to. In the film, Willem Dafoe plays John – a onetime drug addict, who made his living dealing drugs, and even though he’s clean now, still does deal. What else is he going to do? His boss (Susan Sarandon) wants to go legit – but cannot quite seem to make that transition – and when she does, he’ll be left behind anyway. Things are thrown for a loop when John meets his old girlfriend (Dana Delaney) who got clean before him, and is now in town as her mother is dying. Like several Schrader films, there is a murder here, and our hero gets involved in the investigation, and has to find his way out again. The violent conclusion of the film strikes some as wrongheaded – as if Schrader is merely trying to recreate the end of Taxi Driver again. But it’s a sadder ending than that really – and over much quicker. But Light Sleeper does, ultimately, end on a somewhat happier note – some hope for the future at least, as John finally figures something out. This is the best work Dafoe has ever done for Schrader (that’s saying something – they’ve worked together a lot) and one of those films that sticks with you and refuses to go.
5. Mishima: A Life in Four Acts (1985)
There is no question that Mishima is Schrader’s most ambitious and visually stunning film. Schrader is telling the life story of famous Japanese author Mishima – with scenes from the past being shot in stunning black and white, as we learn about his weird childhood, scenes from three of his stories shot in stunning, bright colors which underline his obsessions, and scenes of the last day of his life – when he and his personal army take hostages at a military base to argue for Japan to reinstate the Emperor – something even the Emperor didn’t want. The film connects with many of Schrader’s films – it is a man in a room, getting ready to face the world, and it is a story about the trauma of the past imprisoning the person in the present. It’s a sad, violent film – and is just about one of the most stunning visual films of the 1980s. It is a sprawling mess of a film as well – and that’s just the way it should be.
4. Blue Collar (1978)
Schrader’s directorial debut is a great film for several reasons. One of the most surprising of the reasons is that it is one of the great American films – especially by a white director – dealing with race. In the film, Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphhet Kotto play a trip of Detroit autoworkers who are tired of getting screwed by both the company they work for and the Union that is supposed to represent them – and decide to rob the latter. Things do not go as planned. For much of the film, race seems like a non-factor – these are three men, all basically in the same boat, all getting screwed, all in need of money. But as things start to spiral downwards, race becomes a major factor – especially in the haunting final scene as slurs are thrown around. This is the best screen work of Pryor’s career – he has a few funny moments, but basically, he’s playing it straight, and his rage and anger are real – he carries the film. It’s strange that Schrader never really addresses race in any of his other films (perhaps a few moments in Witch Hunt and Dominion – but not really). Blue Collar stands out for many reasons – but that’s the surprising one.
3. Hardcore (1979)
The more times I watch Hardcore, the more I love it. I’ve always loved most of the film – it’s Schrader, once again diving into territory explored by John Ford’s The Searchers – Schrader also did this in Taxi Driver. All three involve older men, trying to save teenage girls from a situation where they very well may not want to get saved. In this case, it is George C. Scott, as a successful businessman – a Calvinist from Grand Rapids, who daughter runs away from a class trip to California, and when a P.I. finds her, she has been making porn (in the film’s most infamous scene, Scott breaks down watching the film in question). From there, he starts his own investigation – and ends up with a teenage prostitute (Season Hubley) who walks him through this world. Schrader clearly relishes this seedy side of San Francisco and Los Angeles – he shot in real porn shops and clubs, and he has some with the film school generation in the porn shoots. But mainly, this is a strange, sad film about this fathers search. I’ve always thought the ending of the film (SPOILER WARNING) where he finds his daughter, and they talk was a mistake – but this time through, it worked better than ever. It doesn’t let Scott off the hook – like the “heroes” of The Searchers and Taxi Driver are – they don’t have to deal with the aftermath of what they’ve done. It’s all strange and sad – and in the end, Scott walking away from Hubley is almost cruel. This is one of the most underrated films of the 1970s.
2. Affliction (1998)
In many ways, Affliction is the most direct, simplest examination of the themes that have been driving Schrader’s films all along. In small town New Hampshire, Wade (Nick Nolte) is the police chief – but that basically means he drives the snow plough, and does school crossings. He is divorced, his pre-teen daughter wants little to do with him. He drinks and can be an asshole. The only thing he doesn’t want to be is exactly what he is becoming – his father (James Coburn, in an Oscar winning role). Coburn is a mean, nasty drunken who has spent his life abusing his wife and children – and really that’s his whole purpose. The other siblings have been smart enough to get out – get away from him and his influence. But after their mother’s death, Wade sinks deeper and deeper in with his old man. There is a murder mystery of a sort in Affliction – it’s not much of one by design – but mainly this is a character study of this man, forever doomed by his childhood, and unable to escape it. Schrader has made more complex films – more ambitious films – but he’s never made one that moved me this much – that gets right to the heart of what his work has been about for his entire career.

1. First Reformed (2018)
Schrader’s latest film strikes me, upon first viewing, as his masterpiece – the crowning achievement of his career that best summarizes his work, while being its all distinct film. Ethan Hawke gives the best performance of his career as Pastor Toller – a grieving former military pastor, who lost his on to the war, and wife to divorce – who now presides over a church that sees more tourists than parishioners. His life is thrown into tumult when he agrees to counsel a young, environmental activist who doesn’t think its right to bring a child into this world – even though his wife (Amanda Seyfried) is currently pregnant. This is the film of Schrader’s career where his love for directors like Bresson, Dreyer and Bergman all come through the clearest (there are elements of The Diary of Country Priest, Ordet and Winter Light for example) – but it’s filtered through Schrader’s own worldview. The film walks the tricky line between being very timely to the issues going on right now, and yet it seems timeless. For all the pain in the film – and there is a lot of it – it may actually be one of Schrader’s most hopeful films. Schrader here has moved completely away from commercial concerns – and in doing so has crafted his masterpiece – the film that he will be remembered for.

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