Paul Schrader didn’t see a movie until he was 17 years old, and when he finally snuck away from his strict Calvinist home to catch the Disney film The Absent-Minded Professor at a local Grand Rapids, Michigan, theater, he was none too impressed. It was only when he immersed himself in 1960s European cinema while attending college that he fell in love with the art form. “We always love the movies we were watching when we first fell in love with movies,” Schrader recently told Nicolas Cage in Interview magazine. “And for me, that was a kind of serious cinema.”
From his acclaimed early work as a screenwriter, most notably penning Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, to his 40-year-long career as a director, Schrader’s rigorous sensibility frequently shines through, even when the films themselves don’t adopt the severe modes of his influences’. His psychological portraits of lost souls desperately seeking salvation take many forms: a stylish escort cruising around Los Angeles to the tune of Blondie’s “Call Me” (American Gigolo); a Japanese writer struggling with his own repression (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters); a drug dealer trying to turn a new leaf (Light Sleeper); a former actress and her trust-fund boyfriend navigating the depravity of their surroundings (The Canyons), and so on. Schrader’s films widely vacillate in quality and tone, but they all represent his abiding interest in alienated figures striving to achieve serenity in pressure-cooker environments.
In honor of the release of his latest film First Reformed, Vulture has ranked Schrader’s 20 features — his TV movie Witch Hunt was not included — and the result is a diverse list that can easily be reordered any number of ways depending on one’s own mood or aesthetic interests. While not all of Schrader’s films are successful, almost all of them are interesting, and more importantly, they represent different expressions of the man himself. What better way to honor the staunch auteurist than to dive into his lengthy, difficult career?
20. Forever Mine (1999)
Forever Mine, Schrader’s riff on ’40s-style melodramas, is dead on arrival in just about every conceivable way. Joseph Fiennes, who plays a young cabana boy who has an affair with the dissatisfied wife (Gretchen Mol) of a shady business mogul (Ray Liotta), is egregiously miscast, and his turns as a fresh-faced lover and, later, a disfigured criminal attorney are equally unconvincing. Furthermore, the film hinges on the passionate, lustful romance between Fiennes and Mol, a fire that supposedly burns for over 14 years, but the palpable lack of chemistry between the two leads renders the love story completely ineffective. (Liotta gives a typical Liotta performance and it’s easily the film’s best.) John Bailey’s sun-drenched photography is occasionally nice to look at, but the noir plot machinations and the straight-faced, high-key emotional substance are too much for the trio. Everyone comes across stilted and affected rather than painfully sincere, as if they were too keenly aware of the homage at work.
19. Touch (1997)
Elmore Leonard’s witty crime stories are usually ripe for screen adaptations, and many of them (Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, the TV series Justified) are rightfully acclaimed. So it’s unfortunate that Schrader’s Touch, based on Leonard’s novel of the same name, never gets off the ground, especially because it has all the elements of a good time — bouncy atmosphere, an ensemble cast, playful humor, and, befitting Schrader’s thematic obsessions, a cheeky religious story. Like Forever Mine, Touch focuses on a romance, this time between a stigmatic with the mysterious power to heal (Skeet Ulrich) and an aimless record-company assistant (Bridget Fonda), but again, their flat chemistry leaves a gaping hole at the film’s center. The rest of the outsize cast (Christopher Walken, Janeane Garofalo, Gina Gershon, and a very shrill Tom Arnold) desperately try to have fun with Touch’s stale media satire, but the film never rises above merely forgettable. However, Touch deserves some credit for a compelling opening scene and an odd turn by Paul Mazursky as a sleazy, profane record exec.
18. Dying of the Light (2014)
A few months before Dying of the Light’s theatrical/VOD release, Schrader announced on Facebook that the studio had taken the film away from him and heavily reedited it without his input. Later, Schrader and the film’s leads, Nicolas Cage and the late Anton Yelchin, publicly disowned Dying of the Light, strenuously arguing it was not the film they set out to make. We’ll likely never see Schrader’s original cut (though he secretly reedited the film using work print DVDs into a new feature entitled Dark, clips of which can be seen in his MasterClass lecture), but what’s available is a passable espionage thriller featuring a halfway compelling Cage performance. It’s easy to see remnants of Schrader’s original vision, especially whenever the film focuses on the deteriorating psyche of Cage’s tortured, obsessive CIA agent out for revenge. Nevertheless, there’s very little of the director’s personality on display, and though Schrader’s original Dying of the Light might not be some lost masterpiece, at least it would have been a Paul Schrader film. Instead, we merely have a bland exercise in globe-hopping suspense, complete with lackluster chase scenes, indifferent plotting, and rote xenophobia.
17. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)
Schrader’s take on the landmark horror franchise was to strongly emphasize its theological foundation and to eschew the traditional jump scares, a choice that frightened Morgan Creek Productions, which initially shelved the film over concerns about its commercial viability. When the studio hired Renny Harlin to rewrite and reshoot a more conventional film, and it turned out to be a commercial disaster, they rehired Schrader to complete his version in an effort to recoup their compounded investment. The result is a restrained, fitfully compelling character portrait of a former priest turned archaeologist (Stellan Skarsgård, excellent) who discovers a young boy possessed by the devil on a dig in the Turkana region of British Kenya. Though a little dull and hampered by a couple bum performances, it’s admirable to see Schrader approach the idea of evil as a man-made phenomenon, even as the supernatural lingers in the atmosphere. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is much more thoughtful than a second prequel and a fifth installment in a franchise ought to be.
16. Dog Eat Dog (2016)
A gratuitous, grotesque anomaly in Schrader’s filmography, Dog Eat Dog is a fleet, sickly captivating crime thriller following three former prisoners (Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook) who are hired to kidnap a baby for ransom and completely fuck up the mission from the jump. It’s difficult to recommend Dog Eat Dog if you’re not ready to swallow some truly nasty pitch-black comedy (the opening scene features the brutal murder of a mother and daughter played halfway for laughs), and even then, some of the film’s provocations are entirely unproductive, particularly the characters’ casually virulent racism. On the other hand, Schrader’s colorful, coked-out aesthetic never bores, and the film features a deranged, yet deeply felt supporting turn from Dafoe, who adopts clichéd therapy language for his own psychopathic ends. By the end, when Cage begins to read all of his lines in a funny Bogart impression, Dog Eat Dog starts to make some kind of twisted sense.
15. Adam Resurrected (2008)
Schrader’s adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s 1968 novel follows Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), a charming Holocaust survivor who resides in a fictional Israeli asylum specializing in treating survivor’s guilt. Stein was a circus comedian in Berlin prior to WWII, and when the SS rounded up him and his family, a sadistic officer (Willem Dafoe) recognizes him from his act and adopts him as his “pet,” forcing him to act like a dog as a ticket for his survival. Adam Resurrected deserves credit for playing its absurd central conceit remarkably straight and examining the plight of good men who condemn themselves after a perceived failure. Goldblum’s shaky accent aside, his performance, crossed somewhere between Cuckoo’s Nest’s McMurphy and M.A.S.H.’s Hawkeye, keeps the film afloat, even as it veers into occasionally unsuccessful directions. Ultimately, Adam Resurrected tries to accomplish too much with its philosophical and theological inquiries, and the way-too-tidy ending majorly whiffs. Nonetheless, it’s an admirable effort on the part of Schrader to bring a seemingly unadaptable book to life.
14. Auto Focus (2002)
Schrader’s heavy moralist hand ends up being something of a liability in this biopic of Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), Hogan’s Heroes star and sexual deviant whose brutal murder in a Scottsdale motel remains unsolved. On the one hand, Auto Focus understands that Crane is an addict whose vice is anonymous, filmed sex, but on the other hand, it also portrays him as a sinner who has made his own bed, rendering the film a little bit confused by the end. (Although, the film has ironic fun with the fact that Crane’s Hollywood agent [Ron Leibman] acts as the voice of reason.) That said, Kinnear’s career-best turn as Crane is a highlight, and watching the actor (and his character) leverage his superficial likability for creepy ends amounts to a sick kind of entertainment. Dafoe has less to do as Crane’s sycophantic partner in partying, and possible murderer, but he still lights up the screen when the film lets him cut loose. Plus, Schrader’s beneath-the-warring-insects take on ’60s and ’70s Hollywood culture has plenty to offer, even if its cheap thrills eventually wear off.
13. The Walker (2007)
A psychological portrait steeped in Bush-era politics, The Walker follows another one of Schrader’s classic “lonely men”: Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson, affecting a ghastly Southern drawl), a middle-aged gay man who escorts powerful men’s wives to social events around Washington, D.C. Though he eventually gets pinned as a suspect in a murder after his client/friend (Kristin Scott Thomas) discovers her lobbyist fling dead, Schrader is much less interested in the mystery as he is Page’s crumbling mental state, protected only by the superficialities he needs to keep up an appropriate façade. Intended as a direct sequel to American Gigolo, The Walker shares much in common with Schrader’s acclaimed early feature, only with a more active queer subtext vis-à-vis its protagonist’s alienation and feeling trapped by his profession. The film falters when it tries to tie up loose ends, and it often suffers from a suffocating austerity that’s mostly out of place, but it’s still a engrossing study of a man who discovers his own loyalty in a town filled with backstabbers.
12. The Canyons (2013)
It’s interesting to watch The Canyons outside of the context of its initial release, which was hampered by a transparently troubled production, chronicled in a now infamous New York Times Magazine profile, and tabloid stories of star Lindsay Lohan’s various addiction-influenced exploits. Five years later, after all the dust has settled, what’s left is a deeply strange, occasionally unsuccessful, yet never uninteresting examination of narcissism in a celebrity-obsessed culture. Bret Easton Ellis’s screenplay features plenty of soft-core nudity and lurid eroticism (and there’s a plot, too), and while that’s absorbing for a bit, it’s Schrader’s hypnotic direction and John DeFazio’s hazy digital photography that elevates the material beyond its premise. Lohan and James Deen are a dynamic onscreen couple that embody Los Angeles’s glamorous-cum-dingy aesthetic well, and both actors acquit themselves much better than contemporary critical reaction would lead you to believe. A shallow portrait of vapid people can only go so far, and The Canyons indeed wears out its welcome by the time Deen commits the obligatory act of violence, yet the film is neither a monumental disaster nor an unheralded masterpiece. The Canyons is a great example of a film whose subtext curiously outshines its text at any given moment, making it a fascinating curiosity.
11. Affliction (1997)
Nolte shines as small-town policeman Wade Whitehouse, whose fraying mental state completely unravels when he convinces himself that a hunting accident involving a rich out-of-towner is part of a larger conspiracy. Adapted from a Russell Banks’s 1989 novel, Schrader mostly limits the action to Wade’s perspective to pull off a key gambit, in which Wade’s uneven sanity seamlessly transitions into outright dangerous territory before the audience’s eyes. Abetted by dark, icy photography courtesy of Paul Sarossy (frequent collaborator of Atom Egoyan) and gripping supporting turns from Sissy Spacek as Wade’s put-upon girlfriend and James Coburn’s Oscar-winning performance as his violent, alcoholic father, Affliction represents Schrader at his bleakest. The last half hour, when everything goes off the rails for Wade and his family, is as emotionally harrowing as anything in his filmography, even if it hits the same morbid note again and again. In the words of Wade’s brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), who serves as the film’s narrator, “You cannot understand how a man, a normal man, a man like you and me, could do such a terrible thing.”
10. Cat People (1982)
A charmingly schlocky erotic thriller very loosely based on Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton’s 1942 horror film by the same name, Cat People follows the explosive sexual awakening of Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) who, upon arriving in New Orleans, slowly learns that her desires transform her into a black leopard, placing her and her new zoologist lover (John Heard) in jeopardy. Schrader imbues the film with entertaining hothouse sleaze, infecting just about every inch of the frame with an eerie, sensual energy. The plot is cheesy and serviceable, and neither Schrader nor his actors sell the film’s incestuous werecat mythology, but Cat People succeeds in terms of purely superficial pleasure. Kinski pulls off the admirable feat of never winking at the camera even as her character makes absurd, fantastical moves, something that her co-star Malcolm McDowell, who plays Irena’s predatory brother, fails to accomplish. Though Giorgio Moroder’s pulsating score and Bowie’s indelible theme song likely amount to Cat People’s enduring legacy, the film is much more than the sum of its music.
9. Hardcore (1979)
Is there a more quintessential Schrader image than when Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott), a strict fundamentalist Calvinist and prominent Michigan businessman, breaks down in angry tears when he sees his missing upstanding daughter suddenly reappear in a porno film? Hardcore, Schrader’s second feature, introduces and/or clarifies many of the director’s burgeoning thematic interests: an outsider forced to confront a seedy subculture; a moral, principled man struggling to maintain his purity when faced with the pressures of a new environment; a voyeuristic style that embodies the subjects’ discomfiting subconscious desires; a climatic act of violence that engenders catharsis and possible redemption. Scott expertly veers between looking like a deer in the headlights and barely repressed rage as he dives into California’s underworld to find his daughter, but it’s his palpable shame at what he’s become by the film’s end that lingers the longest. Schrader’s patented sleazy aesthetic is on full display, but along the way he gets a lot of mileage poking fun at (a) the casual commodification of the sex industry, and (b) his New Hollywood peers, e.g. when a porn producer marvels at a new director on the scene, his partner mentions he’s from UCLA.
8. Light of Day (1987)
Considered an artistic failure by Schrader, Light of Day, a midwestern rock-and-roll film crossed with a religious melodrama, stands as one of the director’s most underrated features. Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett star as Joe and Patti, a brother-and-sister duo who play in a Cleveland bar band; Patti’s worships at the altar of rock music, and her fiercely independent lifestyle clashes with the stability-focused Joe, who constantly worries about Patti’s young son. Meanwhile, their disapproving religious mother (Gena Rowlands) casts a heavy shadow over the family, which is compounded when she falls ill. Though Schrader is correct that the film is visually flat, Light of Day is still a lovely blue-collar portrait of people whose creative ambitions far outstrip their abilities and circumstance. Fox steals every scene as the family’s passive peacemaker, but it’s wonderful to watch him comfortably take a back seat to Jett and Rowlands, especially considering that he was a major star at the time. Featuring a catchy title track written and composed by Bruce Springsteen, Light of Day continues Schrader’s trend of exploring characters whose troubled upbringings keep them trapped in states of discontent, albeit in a musical register this time.
7. American Gigolo (1980)
American Gigolo, about a materialistic male escort (Richard Gere) who has an affair with a senator’s wife (Lauren Hutton) and gets framed for murder, introduced the world to two things: Gere as an international sex symbol, and the stylish fashion of Giorgio Armani. Influenced by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Schrader takes sensuous pleasure not only in objectifying his male lead, who plays a character that eagerly agrees to his own objectification, but also in the surfaces of his environment. He lingers on the gigolo’s wardrobe, his stereo, his artwork, and his impeccably designed apartment, all of the status symbols that one can attain for a not-so-small price. Schrader is less interested in the murder plot than he is the psychological study, and the film falters when the story has to kick into high gear. Schematic plot aside, Gigolo succeeds as a profile of a pleasure provider whose generosity masks a thin veneer of loneliness, and Gere persuasively sells his character’s devolution from desirable man to out-of-work prostitute after his fancy clients hang him out to dry.
6. The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
A distinctly literary entry in Schrader’s filmography, The Comfort of Strangers follows a British couple (Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett) vacationing in Venice to try to rekindle their relationship, only for them to fall prey to another couple (Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren) who wish to use them for their own devious ends. Harold Pinter puts his own spin on Ian McEwan’s short novel, and while the English novelist is responsible for the plot, it’s Pinter’s voice that rings through the script. But then Schrader infuses the film with his own eerie eroticism that renders the proceedings sexy and unnerving in equal measure. McEwan by way of Pinter by way of Schrader must be one of the strangest combinations of different authorial voices in film history. In turn, The Comfort of Strangers is a defiantly odd film, one that presents a respectable veneer only to shed it in favor of psychosexual gamesmanship. By the end, it’s impossible to mistake it for the work of any director other than Schrader.
5. Patty Hearst (1988)
Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, imprisonment, and subsequent brainwashing by the Symbionese Liberation Army amounts to one of the strangest footnotes in American history, a striking blow for the self-styled guerrilla army that ultimately signaled their demise. In his unsettling adaptation of Hearst’s autobiography, Schrader never once sensationalizes the heiress’s plight, instead choosing to simply telegraph her limited perspective. Patty Hearst’s low budget forced Schrader to make certain stylistic choices that greatly benefit the film’s chilling atmosphere, such as shooting much of the first half from a dark closet; when Schrader finally opens up the world, the ensemble of radicals that were once so threatening from the dark are revealed in the light to be confused, infighting children. Alternately disturbing (the SLA genially inviting Patty to be raped under the guise of shared love) and darkly funny (William Forsythe’s Teko loudly bemoaning that he wasn’t born black because he’ll never understand the experiences of the oppressed), Patty Hearst is a potent depiction of how passive detachment breeds indoctrination. Natasha Richardson’s chillingly blank portrayal lies at the film’s center; it’s only by the end, after she’s been through hell and back, does she finally rediscover her autonomy.
4. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
A stunning biopic of one of Japan’s preeminent authors, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters pulls off the difficult task of dramatizing a life and a body of work without reducing either to plot points on a schematic rise-and-fall narrative. Schrader emphasizes a collage style over narrative, deftly moving between fractured biography and abstract mini-adaptations of three novels, illustrating how the two are in near-constant conversation. Ken Ogata portrays Yukio Mishima as a man driven by his internal contradictions, and the actor strenuously refuses to pare the writer down to an identifiable sum of various parts, instead amplifying opaque ambiguity in his performance. Soundtracked by Philip Glass’s exquisite score, Schrader invites the audience to marinate in the various parallels between Mishima’s troubled existence and his art, but never once does the film force any connections. In fact, it’s Schrader’s clinical distance combined with his deep-seated empathy for his subject that forces the audience to suss out the various relationships between reality and fiction. The result is an unsparing profile that doubles as a powerful tribute.
3. Light Sleeper (1992)
In Light Sleeper, one of Schrader’s very best “man in a room” films, Willem Dafoe gives an emotional tour de force performance as John LeTour, a world-weary New York drug dealer who spends his nights making deliveries to his high-end clients and journaling in his notebook. When a chance meeting with an ex-girlfriend (Dana Delany) awakens him from his walking slumber, LeTour tries for a fresh start, only for his profession, and his past, to catch up with him in tragic ways. Though the literal plot might be a rehash, Schrader’s episodic script and somnambulant atmosphere provides the film with an off-kilter rhythm, one that constantly threatens to tip into outright chaos. Furthermore, Schrader injects a moving sense of fatigue into Light Sleeper, an abiding belief that the good times are long gone and the only thing one can look forward to is some modicum of inner peace. Along with stellar supporting turns from Susan Sarandon and Jane Adams, Light Sleeper embodies the filmmaker’s transcendentalist worldview better than the vast majority of his feature films.
2. Blue Collar (1978)
Inspired by stories of “real-life disillusionment,” Schrader’s phenomenal directorial debut confronts capitalism’s innumerable evils head-on with a bleak, yet humorous tale about three forever-strapped auto workers (Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor, in a tragically overlooked dramatic performance) who rob their union headquarters and discover evidence of an illegal loan operation tied to the Mob. As they try to plot their next move, their corrupt union plans to silence the trio by backing them into corners they can’t escape. Tightly plotted and deeply inhabited, Blue Collar is one of the very best American films about class and race, capturing how employers will exploit divisions among workers to ensure they can never rise above their stature. Blue Collar’s saddest irony is that the three friends, desperate to take on The Man, never once realize that they’re pawns in a game that’s been rigged from the start. Each move they make only brings them further to the proverbial (and literal) grave. It’s a testament to Schrader’s powers as a filmmaker that such a depressed film can also feature Keitel and Pryor mock-fighting each other with dildos.
1. First Reformed (2018)
First Reformed, a summation of Schrader’s four-decade long career, combines all of the director’s reigning pet interests into a masterful work about a lonely priest (Ethan Hawke, in one of the best performances of his storied career) who adopts an alienated environmentalist’s martyrdom as the 250th anniversary of his small parish approaches. An austere portrait of a man whose body and mind are slowly coming undone as he surveys a world apathetic to its own survival, First Reformed represents Schrader’s most mature filmmaking to date, featuring a grab bag of styles taken from many mid-century Europeans directors (Bresson, of course, but also Dreyer, Ozu, and Tarkovsky) that ultimately merges into an aesthetic that’s wholly and unmistakably his own. The film necessarily presents a despairing view of America as its 20th-century glory days recede into the distance, but Schrader isn’t one to shirk away from some form of hope for his isolated priest. As First Reformed builds to its shocking climax, he presents salvation in the form of a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) who’s also curious about how to move forward after a sudden loss. It’s not only the best film of the year so far, but Schrader’s best directorial effort to date.