On the Films of Paul Schrader

Looking at the best and/or most significant films with Schrader’s involvement across his towering four decade career.

My personal introduction to the work of Paul Schrader likely coincides with the first experience of his work for most people in most ways. Rosy faced and new to film, I saw Scorsese’s Taxi Driver at age 14 without really knowing who Scorsese was, never-mind paying enough attention to the credits to spot the name of screenwriter Paul Schrader. As with most people, I was stunned by that film in that moment, and it has admittedly played an important role to the development of my personal tastes with its grim outlook, fantastic anti-hero lead, amazing score and almost sickeningly gorgeous cinematography.

My gradual exploration of Scorsese’s work would, of course, coincide as a small exploration of some of the work of Paul Schrader, who wrote the scripts for Raging Bull (which, some days, is my favourite Scorsese these days), The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing out the Dead (criminally underrated). It would be quite a while before I came across the work of Paul Schrader as a director (I believe Mishima was the first of his films that I saw, some years ago), and even longer before I would come to recognise him as the phenomenal director that he is.

So, what films led to this change of idea? The seed was planted when I saw two other films he wrote the screenplays for – Brian De Palma’s great early work Obsession and the overlooked Rolling Thunder, a revenge film with many of the same sentiments as Taxi Driver but one that I think is much darker in its tone and in its form. Perhaps importantly, I haven’t yet seen The Yakuza, a 1974 film directed by Sydney Pollack that is taken from Schrader’s very first script.

It is in his directorial work, though, that Schrader’s talent shines in an entirely new way. For the sake of keeping this piece a manageable size, I’ll only go over the ones I find most significant (sorry, The Walker and Cat People – the two Schrader duds for my money), but there are plenty of films that still fit within that definition so Schrader fans, you can rejoice.


Starting off with the film that started Schrader’s career as a director, let’s talk about the brilliant Blue Collar. Blue Collar is about a group of three men who decide that their workers’ union isn’t working for them as it should be (an early scene shows the neglect of the union towards the men, and the seed is sown instantly) and decide to rob the headquarters out of financial need and a want for revenge. What starts off as a working class comedy soon becomes a political, paranoid nightmare as the walls seem to start closing in around the characters in what is a really strong film. Richard Pyror gives a magnificent leading performance as his character slowly shifts from a desperate working class man trying to get by to someone deeply impacted by paranoia and by authority. Schrader himself explained to Cineaste on 1978 that he didn’t mean to make the film political at first, that ‘it had to operate in the area of entertainment’, and Blue Collar certainly is entertaining but it is grim and bleak too. It marks the landing of a fantastic director with one of his finest films to date.

Both Hardcore and American Gigolo are interesting follow-ups to Blue Collar, loosening the political edge for more straight forward plots revolving around the seedy underlives of American characters and their attempts to navigate America’s class divides. Both feature terrific leading performances from George C. Scott and Richard Gere respectively, and whilst I don’t think they are major works they do still stand out as very strong films. American Gigolo in particular feels like a lite version of what would come later with the fantastic Light Sleeper – a film to be discussed shortly.

In 1985 comes Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a film which still stands far away from the rest of Schrader’s filmography for many reasons. The film is impossibly gorgeous, it really can’t be stressed enough with words how fantastic it looks throughout as it looks at four parts of the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, taking from his novels for the first three parts before focusing on the last day of Mishima’s life. A stunning score from Philip Glass certainly doesn’t hurt the film either, and it still stands out as Schrader’s most acclaimed film (though First Reformed does give it some competition now).

Film Freak Central - Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) [The Criterion  Collection] - Blu-ray Disc

At the start of the 1990s came The Comfort of Strangers. Adapted from a good Ian McEwan novella, the film is about a couple struggling with their marriage who holiday in Venice as a way to try to bring a spark back. On a night wandering the city, they come across Christopher Walken who takes a keen interest in them and seems to also solve their marital issues. Needless to say, things aren’t quite what they seem and it isn’t long before, once again, class issues come to the forefront in a disturbing manner as the rich Walken has a dark buried past.

Just two years later, Light Sleeper was released. As I said earlier, this film feels much in line with what Schrader was doing with American Gigolo – it involves a lead character who does criminal work in a truly professional manner and primarily deals with middle to upper class characters when selling their product. Light Sleeper, to me, is certainly the better film as it develops much of what Schrader seemed to be saying in Gigolo much further, and of course it uses Schrader’s classic narration via diary technique to bring out his character’s thoughts directly to the audience in a mesmerising way. Willem Dafoe gives a phenomenal performance as a drug dealer who wants to find a way out of dealing, which is interesting as the release year coincides exactly with Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, another film about someone living in crime and then struggling with themselves on a moral level. Both films are in the tier of the greatest cinema that America, or the world entirely, has to offer.

To skip ahead to The Canyons in 2013 (though it would be ignorant to not at least nod to Affliction, which is another very strong film), let’s talk about Schrader’s oddest film to date. Written by the author Bret Easton Ellis (whose work in screenwriting is fascinating – this and the more recently released Smiley Face Killers are both great films in my eyes, linked by many similarities but particularly a certain performance style that seems to actually try to alienate the viewer!) and starring Lindsay Lohan, this is Schrader’s best investigation of modern attitudes towards sexuality by far. Auto Focus has moments of greatness, especially in its first third, but ultimately falls flat to me by trying to adapt a true crime story into a comedy (the irony that its subject, Bob Crane, was most famous for a comedy series set in a Prisoner of War camp isn’t lost on me, but I still don’t think it works very well) – The Canyons on the other hand uses odd, stilted acting to address a truly bleak outlook that Schrader (and Easton Ellis?) has towards modern attitudes to sexuality. It remains a critically maligned film, which is understandable, but I do think it is an interesting work.

Review: 'First Reformed' Is an Epiphany. Ethan Hawke Is, Too. - The New  York Times

Finally, let’s do one last skip to the two major works that, for now, end Schrader’s career (let’s also hope for some more films from him in the future). First Reformed and The Card Counter have both acted together to mark a critical comeback for Schrader (in spite of my personal belief that he has been quite consistent throughout his career, personally), with the former boasting Ethan Hawke’s career-best performance and bringing the career-long influence of both Bresson and Bergman on Schrader to the forefront of the film. With an eerie ambient score, reflections on faith, philosophy, terrorism and the climate crisis and stunning cinematography by Alexander Dynan that creeps around incredibly slowly and tends to keep its distance from the characters, First Reformed is a stunning film.

Its recently released follow-up, The Card Counter, is even better to me – focusing on Schrader’s trademark ‘God’s lonely man’ character once again, this film employs all of Schrader’s cinematic auteur traits from diary writing to a focus on the American capitalistic underbelly to a very well controlled look into the aftermath of America’s Middle Eastern behaviour. It combines the best parts of all of his work to date – the soundtrack is moody and uncomfortable, the cinematography is gorgeous, eerie and experimental, Oscar Isaac gives the greatest performance of the year as William Tell and Schrader directs with intense control over every element – the pacing is wonderful, riding the line perfectly between slow and neutral. It’s a masterful film that culminates Schrader’s career long interests perfectly, and a film that all should see as it may be the best film with a focus on American war politics since The Deer Hunter. It really goes that far back.

Compendium: Paul Schrader | Cinema St Louis

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