"I killed more screen characters in the first four films I wrote than I have since. I realized I had to stop writing violence." --- PAUL SCHRADER
Paul Schrader is not only one of the most accomplished and trenchantly observed screenwriters who ever sat at the Underwood, he's become quite a gifted film director as well. No doubt informed by his filmmaking partnership with the great Martin Scorsese, remember, Schrader also started out as a film critic, so he also brings a fresh perspective from the other side of the table. The press table. As such, this staunchly raised Calvinist disallowed to even watch a movie until he was 18 years old, now newly 70, has for four decades plumbed the dark depths of the human psyche in such undeniable cinematic powerhouses as TAXI DRIVER (his first script), HARDCORE, BLUE COLLAR, RAGING BULL, OBSESSION, CAT PEOPLE, WITCH HUNT, THE MOSQUITO COAST, LIGHT SLEEPER, AFFLICTION, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, DOMINION: EXORCIST PREQUEL, and that just extends to the overt genre material. No two ways about it, Schrader has a resume worthy of first-ballot Hall of Fame consideration.
Not quite sold? You will be once you join us in deferentially Dissecting Paul Schrader's genre-studded 40 year career!
"I wrote Taxi Driver (1976) as personal therapy, not as a commercial project."
Regardless of whatever genre you care to ascribe it to, since it was the very first screenplay he ever submitted, and since it's now universally recognized as one of the finest films ever made, there's no way in Hell's Kitchen we'd conscionably call anything but TAXI DRIVER as Schrader's most durable and important piece of work to date. After-all, it ignited his career in film, as well as catapulted a fecund multi-decade professional collaboration with perhaps the greatest living American moviemaker, Martin Scorsese. And together, their first time out, they created an inarguable masterwork of searing psychological diagnostics. Travis Bickle is one of the greatest characters ever drawn, so contradictory, so unreliable as narrator, so unpredictable from one moment to another.
On one hand he's a sad, lonely, disillusioned Vietnam war vet with a soft spot for rescuing an underage prostitute, and on the other he's a violently unhinged pervert concocting potential assassination schemes. And it's the empathy, if not sympathy, Schrader is able to shade the character with that allows us to ride on his side for most of the film. And then, almost suddenly, Bickle goes postal, and all of the disgusted sentiments we shared with him early on get flipped on their ear, and it's precisely he that we grow weary of. It's brilliant writing, of course realized with equal magnificence by Scorsese and De Niro. And not for nothing, but horror film or no, the violence in the film is among some of the most indefatigably realistic and uncompromisingly graphic that we've ever seen. And it's just as powerful 40 years later!
Speaking of anniversaries, it's hard to believe Schrader's superb detective-drama AFFLICTION turns 20 next year. What a tremendous movie, featuring a career performance by the always excellent Nick Nolte. Honestly, had Schrader had the wherewithal to nix the ham-fisted, over-expository closing narration, I believe we'd remember AFFLICTION as one of the best flicks ever assembled, not just in Schrader's canon, but anyone else's as well. The gravity of the father-son drama, played beautifully by Nolte and James Coburn, cruxes the superficial story-line about the investigation of a hunting accident in a tiny New Hampshire town. This is another intense character study of a man at his width's end, a man losing his own moral center and his family unit begins crumbling all around him. And because it's that rare breed of a movie that Schrader both wrote and directed - not simply one or the other - it deserves legitimate mention among his highest caliber and most memorable work. No Shite, I was shaken to the bone when I first saw this film, an AFFLICTION I still carry just by thinking of it.
This one's easier than a $2 hooker. What in the Samhain was Schrader thinking when opting to helm THE CANYONS - a cheaply micro-budgeted, glorified student-film, shot on video, starring a boiling mess in Lindsay Lohan and male porn star James Deen? Was he thinking at all? Was he trying to cash in on the porn-accepted zeitgeist, a la Soderbergh in THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE? Never mind, there's no rightful justification here, THE CANYONS is an dismally embarrassing blemish on Schrader's CV no matter how you chop it up.
Even if, for whatever reason, Paul just wanted the chance to work with writer Bret Easton Ellis (AMERICAN PSYCHO), as a screenwriter himself and onetime critic, Schrader should have known way better than to partake in this tasteless and exploitative dross. Hell, having also wrote and directed HARDCORE back in 1978, a wonderful movie that so maturely handles the nastily seductive nature of the porn industry, he should have been aware of what an abject joke THE CANYONS would be in comparison. More dubious still is how, reportedly, Schrader actually directed a sex scene in the film while he himself was nude on set, so to make Lohan more comfortable. Wildly misguided, as there's not a single second of THE CANYONS that offers one scintilla of comfort...to anyone!
The nocturn. The nighttime. Inner demons, psychological torment, dark and deep-seeded moral and emotional unrest...these are thematic through-lines Schrader seems most intent on exploring. Religion, identity, sexuality, the body politic...nothing is off limits. Character based dramas in which his main subject unceremoniously sees their world come crashing down all around them...whether writing, directing or both...these are the kinds of stories Paul has, for 40 years, been most gravitated towards. Even under the guise of a genre picture, a la CAT PEOPLE, Schrader still manages to make his movies about well-drawn people who must grapple with the inner-struggle their surroundings present. CAT PEOPLE is also a fascinating watch when compared to the 1940s Val Lewton version, particularly in the sexually charged way Paul is able to overtly address the themes - primal rage, animal lust, etc. - the very same that were merely hinted at and skirted around under the Hayes Code of Hollywood's golden age. Schrader's 1982 version is a scary, sexy, sultry film, and as far as remakes go, propels the subject matter forward in a far more progressive way than the original was legally able to. The way remakes should be!
To spare us a micro review, do wise and scope out The Arrow's newly minted take on OBSESSION - Schrader's splendidly scripted Brian De Palma movie. And then, if you haven't, go rent that sucker any way you can. It's a hell of an achievement!
But in the interim, allow us to call attention to a pair of pics that never seem to cull the adulation they're rightly owed. Yes, I'm talking about the nighttime NYC reunion of Schrader and Scorsese in the manically vertiginous BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, and the oft-panned replacement project, DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST. Let's go to work!
Goddamn I love BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, a movie I would just as easily count among Scorsese's hidden gems. The story about a haunted Hell's Kitchen paramedic wracked by sleep-deprived hallucinations of all the lost lives and unsaved souls he encounters day to day, night to night, again serves to shine light on the urban underbelly America's greatest cityscape. The style and verve Scorsese injects his film with, the dizzying energy, psychedelic lighting and kinetic camerawork perfectly mirror the subject matter in a way that allows us to get in the head of Nic Cage's main character. The hilariously biting dark comedic exploits of Tom Sizemore, Ving Rhames and John Goodman go a long way in terms of a coping mechanism - not just for the horrors the audience sees, but that the characters witness as well. It's Schrader and Scorsese at their most cynical, satirical and sarcastic...not just as a grand allegory for the health problems of sleep deprivation, but again in terms of how negligent society is toward the underprivileged, the impoverished, the crime ridden and violently victimized. It's yet again another quintessential New York Scorsese/Schrader character study.
But if hidden is what you're really after, don't front, how many of you knew that Paul Schrader actually directed a version of DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST in 2005. Many may not know this tidbit, for, almost immediately after production wrapped, Morgan Creek deemed Schrader's version too graphically tame to be commercially viable. Renny Harlin was then brought on board to retool the script, hire new actors and shoot an entirely different version, which was ultimately released in 2004 as the box-office bomb, EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. A year later, under the name DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, Schrader's psychological thriller was restored and made various festival rounds. It even garnered good word of mouth from critics, as well as EXORCIST author William Peter Blatty, who wholeheartedly endorsed the film, calling it "a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work." If you've not seen this version, we urge you to do so ASAP. It definitely deserves a look!
Luckily for us, ol Paulie has a pair of projects in the works we can look forward to seeing in the not so distant future. Interestingly, one that he wrote but did not direct (THE JESUIT) and one he directed but did not write (DOG EAT DOG). Let's give them a closer peek, shall we?!
Unbelievably gestating since at least 2010 (we have the news articles to prove it), Schrader's bold and brazen revenge picture THE JESUIT - directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Pineda Ulloa - continues to float in purgatorial postproduction. Starring Ron Perlman, Shannyn Sossamon, Tim Roth, Brian Cox, Paz Vega and Neal McDonough:
The Jesuit is the alias of a man who was wrongly accused and became imprisoned. When The Jesuit discovers that his wife has been murdered and his son kidnapped and taken to Mexico, he elaborates a complex and dangerous plan to rescue his son and avenge the death of his deceased wife.
What do you think? Sound like your cup of blood? If so, consider Schrader's next directorial effort DOG EAT DOG, which reunites him with the likes of Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage:
Carved from a lifetime of experience that runs the gamut from incarceration to liberation, Dog Eat Dog is the story of three men who are all out of prison and now have the task of adapting themselves to civilian life. The California three strikes law looms over them, but what the hell, they're going to do it, and they're going to do it their way. Troy, an aloof mastermind, seeks an uncomplicated, clean life but cannot get away from his hatred for the system. Diesel is on the mob's payroll and his interest in his suburban home and his nagging wife is waning. The loose cannon of the trio, Mad Dog, is possessed by true demons within, which lead him from one situation to the next. One more hit, one more jackpot, and they'll all be satisfied. Troy constructs the perfect crime and they pull it off, but in the aftermath, they keep finding the law surrounding them wherever they go.
Keep a lid peeled for THE JESUIT and DOG EAT DOG to come out sooner rather than later.
For all of the gargantuan contributions he's made over the past 40 years, it's still seems Paul Schrader isn't quite as fully appreciated as he ought to be. But let's not kid ourselves, this dude deserves to be mentioned among the finest cinematic scribes to ever attempt the profession. Unflinching honesty when it comes to human observation, that is the thing that should ring truest about Schrader's wide and varied oeuvre. Of course, his talents extend beyond the page to behind the camera, as he's shown how adroit a director he can be as well. TAXI DRIVER, HARDCORE, BLUE COLLAR, OBSESSION, RAGING BULL, CAT PEOPLE, THE MOSQUITO COAST, LIGHT SLEEPER, AFFLICTION, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, DOMINION: EXORCIST PREQUEL, etc. - these are flicks that offer sympathetic glimpses at deeply troubled and loveably flawed characters, and not just glimpses, but studies that help us better understand ourselves. Sounds poncy perhaps, but it's true. Here's hoping Schrader has more teaching tools in store of us with THE JESUIT and DOG EAT DOG!