Why this might not seem so easy

Raised in a strict Protestant household that emphasised academia but forbade such frivolities as the watching of movies, Paul Schrader would only see his first film at the age of 17. It quickly began an obsession that led to careers as a movie critic, scholar, screenwriter and ultimately director. But the ascetic and intellectual nature of those formative years, as well as a guilty adult fascination with sex and violence, have shaped Schrader’s cinema ever since. Challenging and often cold, Schrader’s films have always been potently alive with ideas.

In his almost five decades as a filmmaker, Schrader has tried all manner of subjects, genres and styles, to varying degrees of success. An ace rust-belt crime drama (1978’s Blue Collar) can precede a seedy neo-noir (1979’s Hardcore); an Oscar-winning literary adaptation (1997’s Affliction) can trail a critically reviled religious satire (1997’s Touch). Schrader as an auteur has always been stubbornly difficult to pin down. His career is compelling, in part, because a huge swing-and-a-miss can sometimes be followed by a masterpiece.

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The best place to start – First Reformed

First Reformed (2017)

After a seemingly directionless few years helming the likes of 2013’s soapy erotic thriller The Canyons and 2016’s hyperactive Tarantino pastiche Dog Eat Dog, Schrader refocused to make his most deliberate film. In First Reformed (2017), smalltown pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is consumed by despair after a young local climate activist takes his own life, leaving behind a pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) and environmental concerns that seem to infect Toller like a virus.

Shot and paced with meditative purpose, in a colour scheme that renders the picture almost black and white, First Reformed marks Schrader’s most explicit use of the withholding techniques of filmmakers Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer described in his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. As well as drawing on the spare spiritual cinema that moved him as a young man, Schrader borrows from himself, making the disintegrating Toller a more mature version of a character he’s been writing since Taxi Driver in 1976. 

It adds up to not just one of the best films in Schrader’s long filmography but a summation of his entire career.

What to watch next

Light Sleeper (1992)

First Reformed is just one of Schrader’s signature ‘man in a room’ or ‘night worker’ stories, his central character of a loner in existential crisis having taken many forms: aesthete male escort Julian Kay (Richard Gere) in the seductively stylised American Gigolo (1980); middle-aged drug dealer John LeTour (Schrader regular Willem Dafoe) in the dreamy Light Sleeper (1992); high society companion Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) in slight political mystery The Walker (2007); card sharp William Tillich (Oscar Isaac) in his new gambling drama The Card Counter (2021).

Through his parallel career as a highly regarded writer-for-hire, Schrader’s figure of ‘God’s lonely man’ has also found his way into notable films by other directors, including Sydney Pollack (1974’s The Yakuza), Peter Weir (1986’s The Mosquito Coast) and, most fruitfully, Martin Scorsese. In the Catholic Scorsese, the Dutch Calvinist Schrader found a filmmaker similarly eager to tell a story of a guilty man in crisis. Their collaborations include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull (1980) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and it’s for these that Schrader – despite having directed 22 films of his own – arguably remains best known.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Where Schrader’s character studies are often pared back, sometimes to the point of austerity, his Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) is magnificently lavish. Harmonising disparate elements – opulent set design, disturbing subject matter, a rapturous Philip Glass score – the film tells the life story of controversial Japanese author Yukio Mishima through biographical detail and illustrative extracts of the writer’s novels, recreated by Schrader as brashly coloured stage productions. Schrader’s favourite of his own films (“as a screenwriter it’s Taxi Driver, but as a director it’s Mishima”), he sees in the author’s life and work a subject who – like Travis Bickle – sought glory in death.

2002’s Auto Focus is another biopic about one of Schrader’s real-life doomed men, in this case Bob Crane, the cheeseball star of hit 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. Played with blank affability by Greg Kinnear, Crane is a rare Schrader lead in that the affliction – a sex addiction that consumes him as fame and family fade away – seems to bring little internal suffering before the inevitable downfall.

Blue Collar (1978)

Something of an outlier in Schrader’s filmography is his directorial debut, Blue Collar, a social-realist heist drama in which three Detroit auto workers (Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) rob the offices of their own union in financial desperation. Furiously political, and with an almost vérité feel to the performances and location work, the film often feels more Ken Loach than Paul Schrader. Light of Day (1987), starring Michael J Fox and Joan Jett as front-siblings of also-ran Cleveland band The Barbusters, is a more commercial offering set in a working-class milieu, with a warmth and youthful energy found in few Schrader movies.

The Comfort of Strangers (1990)

Schrader followed Light of Day with two films starring Natasha Richardson, both sorely undervalued: Patty Hearst (1988), an account of the heiress’s kidnap and transformation into a passive cult member, and The Comfort of Strangers (1990), a psychological thriller written with distinctively chilly precision by Harold Pinter, about a young English couple on the rocks in a Venice that Schrader renders intoxicating.

Where Schrader excels at psychological portraits of troubled men (and occasionally women), his excursions in genre have produced more mixed results. A notable exception is his humid 1982 remake of Cat People. Starring Nastassja Kinski as a young woman whose sexual awakening unlocks her ability to turn into a man-eating leopard, it’s an artfully seamy (if overlong) horror that boldly builds on the mythology of a classic original.

Where not to start

While Schrader’s lesser films have ranged from the confused (Touch) to the faintly ridiculous (1994’s fantasy noir Witch Hunt), none have been as insubstantial or impersonal as the two that emerged from the most notoriously troubled productions of his career.

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005)

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005), Schrader’s return to studio moviemaking after years of hustling for independent productions, was initially shelved after the director delivered a more bloodless horror than production company Morgan Creek were expecting. Action journeyman Renny Harlin was hired to shoot an entirely new version that hit theatres in 2004, though Schrader’s more cerebral cut would be released just a year later, to a critical reception only slightly warmer than that which greeted Harlin’s disastrous take.

2014’s Dying of the Light, which stars Nicolas Cage as a gung-ho CIA agent battling dementia while on the trail of a terrorist, was re-edited by spooked producers after they took issue with Schrader’s experimental approach. To convey the lead character’s diminishing mental faculties, the director had intended the film to be expressionistic and aggressively edited; instead, a routine spy thriller drained of colour was released without Schrader’s approval. Schrader, unbowed, leaked his version onto BitTorrent in 2018.

Paul Schrader’s new film, The Card Counter, is in cinemas from 5 November 2021.