Every Paul Schrader Film, Ranked

Movies Lists Paul Schrader
Every Paul Schrader Film, Ranked

It’s a great time to be a Paul Schrader fan. Since the release of 2018’s First Reformed, which earned the writer and director his first ever Academy Award nomination, there’s been a re-energized burst of appreciation around the filmmaker, allowing him not only the opportunity to make movies on his terms once again at a steady clip but also a greater appreciation for his previous work as well. Seemingly every week you can find retrospective showings of films like Hardcore in N.Y. or L.A., and titles including Cat People, Touch, American Gigolo and Affliction have recently seen excellent new physical media releases from boutique labels. 

This month, Criterion Channel unveiled a new “Directed by Paul Schrader” collection which covers films from across his nearly 50-year career behind the camera, as well as an “Adventures in Moviegoing” conversation with the director where he talks about his passion for movies like An Autumn Afternoon and Ordet, two films that “proved a revelation in his understanding of the medium” and reflect his obsession with “transcendental style.” Schrader documented this cinematic approach in his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, written during his days as a film critic for the Los Angeles Free Press and Cinema magazine. He explains how, due to his strict Calvinist upbringing, he was unable to see a film until he was 17 years old, and as a result when he finally did discover the medium through the works of Ingmar Bergman, he instantly had an intellectual excitement and curiosity. 

That introduction would fuel his transition into the world of film criticism, where he’d earn a master’s degree in film studies at UCLA and develop a bond with esteemed trend-setter critic Pauline Kael. Making movies himself was the inevitable trajectory for the Grand Rapids native, beginning with the script for Taxi Driver, which he wrote on spec and was only able to get made after he sold another screenplay (The Yakuza, co-written with his brother Leonard). Taxi Driver established his recurring fascination with self-destructive protagonists, often in transactional career fields, who look for redemption in both themselves and the world around them, often through acts of violence and/or sacrifice. It was also the genesis of his relationship with director Martin Scorsese, with whom he’d collaborate several more times by writing the screenplays for Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead

Schrader still writes scripts occasionally for other filmmakers, with projects in the works that are lined up to be directed by Elisabeth Moss and Antoine Fuqua. You can also find him practicing criticism in the modern way via his much-discussed Facebook account, where he shares his hot takes on films like Saltburn (“an inversion of [The Talented Mr. Ripley] which should not work. And it doesn’t”) and I Saw the TV Glow (“Jane [Schoenbrun] is hands down the most original voice in film in the last decade”) along with his ruminations on hot-button discourse like the new Sight & Sound list and politics, which can sometimes get him in hot water

Through it all, the one thing that has defined Schrader is his inability to be anyone other than himself, bringing the magnitude of complexities of being human into each of his works and filtering himself through each. This holds especially true in his transition to becoming a director; as he tells Kevin Jackson in the book Schrader on Schrader, “That’s what you do for a living: you pick at your own wounds, and the deeper and more private the wound, the more special it is to you and possibly the more it can mean to someone else.” 

Traveling through each of Schrader’s directed works (with the exception of Oh, Canada, which recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be added to this list upon its release) is a daunting experience, unsurprisingly filled with despair. But, as Reverend Ernst Toller explains in First Reformed, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously: hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” 

In the films of Paul Schrader, one constantly grapples with the search for meaning in a cruel and hopeless world, with the filmmaker never pretending that an answer is to be found. The nature of humanity lies in the searching.

Here is every Paul Schrader movie, ranked: 

23. Forever Mine (2000)

Forever Mine came from a good place. As Schrader tells it, “My thinking before making it was that everything had got so deconstructed and hip and referential that it would be fun to make a film that was completely old-fashioned, that harkened back to the Douglas Sirk kind of sensibility.” You can feel that striving for Sirkian melodrama all over this tale of a decades-long feud between a cabana boy (Joseph Fiennes) and a shady business mogul (Ray Liotta), spurred when the former has an affair with the latter’s wife (Gretchen Mol). For all its faults, the film is irrefutably lush, with breathtakingly warm cinematography from Schrader’s regular collaborator John Bailey and an Angelo Badalamenti score that could only come from that illustrious master of the high drama. Originally written in the late ‘80s with Patrick Swayze set to star, Schrader’s script sat on the shelf for quite a while and this period at the turn of Y2K was a bold moment to resurrect it. While Hollywood was steeped in Tarantino knock-offs, something this old-fashioned could feel like a breath of fresh air (just look at The Talented Mr. Ripley). 

The issues are two-fold. First, for a melodrama to work, there should be some grounding in reality to make the extravagant theatrics come from somewhere true. With its plot (disfigured cabana boy returning from the grave to seek revenge), Forever Mine comes off more daytime soap opera than Douglas Sirk. The other issue is in the casting, something Schrader himself acknowledges by stating that the tricky dual role in its center needs to be “Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic and Pacino in Carlito’s Way in the same movie.” Joseph Fiennes was cast for being a hot property in Hollywood at the time, fresh off Shakespeare in Love, but that movie’s success wasn’t due to his talents. He’s all out of place as DiCaprio and Pacino. With a highly questionable Cuban(?) accent and zero chemistry with a likewise adrift Gretchen Mol (Liotta is decent enough but kind of sleepwalking through “the Ray Liotta role”), Fiennes can’t center this picture at all. “I’m so torn about this film,” Schrader said, “because in a way I want it to be brainless romantic entertainment, but I’m not a brainless romantic person.” Clearly, Forever Mine is a case of an artist not matching the material he’s going for, even though the intentions made sense.

22. Witch Hunt (1994)

Aa an HBO movie made for $8 million at a time when Schrader was on the ropes just attempting to get anything made, there’s certainly a sense that Witch Hunt is directed by a guy who’s not one hundred percent passionate about the material he’s working with. A sequel to the Fred Ward-starring HBO picture Cast a Deadly Spell, this follow-up jumps from the ‘40s to the ‘50s in a Hollyweird where magic exists and society has to reckon with what that all means. While some allow it to flourish, others like Senator Larson Crockett (Eric Bogosian) want to outlaw its usage and blacklist anyone who practices. If that sounds a little HUAC to you, you’re not the only one. The metaphor is a bit heavy-handed, though Schrader scaled it back more than what was in the original script, which featured full-on references to McCarthy’s attacks on Hollywood. 

Witch Hunt is light on its feet, though it ends up feeling ill-defined when all is said and done. Schrader replaced Ward with Dennis Hopper in the leading role of private dick Harry Phillip Lovecraft (H.P. Lovecraft, heh), opting to make the character more Beat Generation than Philip Marlowe, and Hopper is sturdy enough in tampering down his manic charisma for something more straightforward. It’s the world around him that’s outlandish, and there’s a struggle to find that right tone between the absurd and the noir. For a movie as batshit as this one—lit with bright fluorescents and big splashes of color across turquoise walls and red lipsticks—it’s all a little drowsy. 

Schrader sparked at the opportunity to experiment with early special effects, though those elements seem rudimentary now. Mixed with the silliness of the plot, it can be tough to swallow—case in point, a scene in which a woman chants a spell to conjure William Shakespeare into the world, her words exiting her mouth and dancing in circles around her body like some kind of Disney Channel Original Movie. Then Shakespeare actually shows up in full Ren Faire-quality attire. If nothing else, there is pleasure to be had in Bogosian’s wild performance, including a climactic moment where his conservative politician literally splits down the middle and out of him emerges an id-like Bogosian whose energy resembles his lacerating stand-up persona.

21. The Canyons (2013)

A collaboration between Paul Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis, with lead roles occupied by a spiraling Lindsay Lohan at the peak of her tabloid notoriety and adult film star James Deen (a couple years before nine women came forward with rape allegations against him), that The Canyons generated more coverage as a clickbait spectacle than anything else. Details of the frequent, elaborate clashes between Schrader and his two stars spread like wildfire—the bulk of them captured in Stephen Robrock’s New York Times feature “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.”

The film was lambasted upon release, treated as either a catastrophic failure or, at the very best, a “so bad it’s good” camp classic. Recent reappraisals have been kinder to Schrader and Ellis’ tale of a vapid couple violently falling out over sexual betrayals. While those might be pushing things a tad (or a lot) too far for me, it is encouraging to see folks at least assessing the picture on its own merits, outside the frenzied bubble of ravenous takedown culture The Canyons suffers under the weight of Ellis’ inability to mature as an observer of the elite, once again diving into a pool of self-obsessed pretty guys and gals who will destroy one another in the pursuit of cash, fame and sex—without adding anything new to what he’s delivered before in that milieu.

The most compelling facet of this roast of Hollywood bloodsuckers is Lohan’s performance, a tragic and insightful mirror of her perception at the time—one looking at the struggle of an artist to reclaim a reputation that had long moved past the promise of breakout stardom and faded into washed-out has-been. It feels like a sincere peek behind the curtain in alarming, confrontational ways, only enhanced by the knowledge of her battles with alcohol abuse and rehab stints. Schrader opens and closes The Canyons with montages of vacant, long-abandoned movie houses and rental stores, calling our attention not only to the death of cinema as we know it, but also the people who inhabited those pictures on the silver screen. There are some compelling ideas here, they just get too often washed out in the muck of navel-gazing nothingness and a truly abominable performance from Deen. 

20. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

Similar to The Canyons, Schrader’s highest-budgeted feature to date also met more talk around its chaotic production than around the material itself. Beginning life in the early 2000s with John Frankenheimer directing and Liam Neeson starring, Exorcist: The Beginning was a prequel to William Friedkin’s horror classic that would tell the story of Father Merrin (played by Max von Sydow in the original) battling the demon Pazuzu in East Africa years before encountering the MacNeil family. 

The briefest possible explanation of this extensive, bloated, studio-mismanaged production hell is thus: Schrader took over for Frankenheimer when the latter’s health issues became too severe. Stellan Skarsgård replaced Liam Neeson. With $30 million at his disposal and studio backing, Schrader made a studio version of a Schrader picture, which meant that the studio hated it. They wanted a mainstream horror film, and according to them Schrader’s movie wasn’t scary and didn’t have enough gore, so they made him recut it twice. They still hated it. Schrader was mad, probably hurled some expletives, and got fired. Instead of releasing the film, the studio brought in Renny Harlin to shoot a ton of new scenes to make basically an entirely different film—with almost an entirely new cast apart from Skarsgård and a couple others—and they released that instead. Exorcist: The Beginning earned heinous reviews, and a year later the studio ended up releasing Schrader’s version anyway (after hastily affording him some extra cash to complete it with cobbled together music and some shoddy visual effects). 

Retitled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Schrader’s version still has its issues, but it’s at least more interesting than the DTV-level schlock that was The Beginning. You can certainly see more of Schrader in here, as the story utilizes Merrin’s faith to dig deeper into philosophical and religious questions, such as how God can allow atrocities to occur—especially at the level of suffering that Merrin witnesses and is a party to. For what it’s worth, The Exorcist author (and director of the quite good The Exorcist III) William Peter Blatty described watching Harlin’s version as “the most humiliating professional experience” he’d ever had, while conversely stating that Schrader’s film was “a handsome, classy, elegant piece of work.” 

19. Dying of the Light (2014) / Dark (2017)

Not every Paul Schrader feature had a woeful production process, and even some that did would turn out to be his finest work. That said, it’s no coincidence that three notoriously difficult productions have landed in consecutive spots near the bottom of this list. One imagines that if Schrader himself were to see this, he’d object to the inclusion of Dying of the Light at all, given that the studio took the film away from him and completely rejiggered it without his insight or approval. When I spoke to Schrader last year, he counted it as the lowest point in his career, telling me “I realized I had a debacle film that I did with Nic Cage, and it was taken away from me and they tried to kill me. I don’t even say that jokingly. It was being edited by somebody else in Los Angeles, and if I left Los Angeles, that would be considered quitting the film and they didn’t have to pay me the money they owed me.” 

He continued: “I was sitting there in a hotel room drinking, and I realized after about four or five days of that, I said, ‘They want me to die. They want me to die in this hotel room drinking all day long, and I’m not going to die that way and I’m going to leave town and they can keep their money.’” Schrader would ensure that he always had final cut on everything he made from here on out, but Dying of the Light remained—and he ensured no one would mistake it for being a piece he felt was truly his. Taking to Facebook, he wrote, “We lost the battle. ‘Dying of the Light,’ a film I wrote and directed, was taken away from me, reedited, scored and mixed without my input,” accompanied by photos of himself, stars Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin, and producer Nicolas Winding Refn all wearing shirts with text of the non-disparagement clause in their contracts for the film which forbade them from speaking negatively of Dying of the Light around its release. 

The protest didn’t end there. Three years later, Schrader fought to restore his first cut as much as he could with the use of workprint DVD footage and choppy sound. His malformed baby would be titled Dark and the director uploaded it for free on torrent websites, as well as storing digital files of it at film archives including UCLA. In his words, he did this “not for exhibition or personal gain” but for “historical record.” So what of the ultimate quality of Dying of the Light and Dark? Like all of these rough and tumble productions, there is an inherently Schrader core at the center that is compelling. The film examines a man (Cage) who was trained that his value is one specific thing—service to the CIA—and is grappling with losing his faculties due to frontotemporal dementia. He now has to consider what his worth will become once his mind has slipped away. Schrader reckons with the indoctrination the United States attempts to put us all through in service to and worship of this country, and what a man like this gives of himself in order to fulfill that absurd sense of obligation. At one point, Cage’s character states that he wants to “do something that is worth remembering with my time.” It’s tragic that all he can think to do is take his revenge on a man who has long forgotten him. 

Dark creatively utilizes the limitations of the materials Schrader had to work with to embed us more fully in the crumbling state of this man’s psyche. It’s very rough around the edges, naturally, but certainly feels like it hits closer to the director’s original vision than Dying of the Light, which clearly shifts, about a third of the way through, to into another generic Nicolas Cage DTV action-thriller. 

18. The Walker (2007)

A “walker” is described in Schrader’s film as a man who “walks rich women from place to place.” Often gay and independently wealthy, these men operate in circles like the world of D.C. politics. It’s a real-life tradition, one which Schrader studied using the life of Jerry Zipkin, who escorted Nancy Reagan to operas and the like because Ronald had no interest in attending. Schrader saw this type of character as representative of his existential wanderers, his “God’s Lonely Man,” and at the time of writing The Walker he hoped it would wrap up his loose series on this specific character—that he could then “call it a day with that existential hero.” That didn’t end up coming to pass, as his recent trilogy attests, but it’s easy to see how The Walker exists in that same space. 

An update on American Gigolo, Schrader saw The Walker as “taking the gigolo out of the bedroom and [putting] him in a social function” to explore “this notion of a deeply superficial man whose superficiality is put to the test by circumstances, and he has to decide exactly how superficial he is.” That man is Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson) and those circumstances are the murder of a lobbyist who is the secret adulterous lover of one of the women Page escorts (Kristin Scott Thomas). Similar to Richard Gere’s Julian Kay in Gigolo, Page is embroiled in the murder scandal, and The Walker guides us through the societal machinations of elite D.C. to see how this man’s morals slowly ostracize him from the upper-crust connections he’s made. 

Schrader and Harrelson have both stated over the years that the actor was disastrously miscast (Schrader championed Rupert Everett for the part, but was shut down by the studio), and while Harrelson’s performance takes a bit of getting used to, it’s actually quite effective. Especially as we dig more into Page’s resentment towards himself for never being able to live up to his father’s reputation, and how he’s a grown man still living in the shadow of a parental figure who died a decade ago, we can see his fragile soul eroding. The people who made him privy to their secrets and trust never actually considered him “one of them.” What buckles The Walker is languid pacing and too much murder-mystery, which isn’t nearly as noteworthy as the social ramifications of this man stepping out of his lane and changing his stripes—or at least considering it. 

17. Touch (1997)

A satire on huckster faith, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, Touch caught flak upon release largely because critics and audiences had no idea what to make of its tone. Here’s Paul Schrader, the guy who adapted The Last Temptation of Christ and wrote Transcendental Style in Film, making a comedy about stigmata? It’s easy to see why people would be lost, though if you peel back the surface you can undoubtedly see Schrader’s stamp on it. The director mostly just wanted to make a picture—at the time he was still struggling to get financing for films like Light Sleeper and Affliction, and taking gigs like this and Witch Hunt to play around a bit. He had also been desperate to do an Elmore Leonard adaptation. He’d initially tried to get the rights to Rum Punch before the Leonard craze took off, but got turned down by the producer who had those rights…basically because Schrader wasn’t cool enough in Hollywood at the time. 

So the Leonard and Schrader fusion came in this unlikely form: An adaptation of Leonard’s least successful book, which was met with the same results. “The fundamental contradiction hurt the financial life of the book,” Schrader says, referring to the religious comedy angle within Leonard’s profane and stylized form, “but it was also the thing that interested me the most.” There is a loose, lackadaisical rhythm to Touch’s tale of a mild-mannered man (Skeet Ulrich) with a spiritual gift for healing, taken under the swirl of a mobile home salesman and former preacher (Christopher Walken) and positioned as a media sensation for profit. Also in the mix are Bridget Fonda as a woman Walken persuades to con Ulrich into pursuing this, and Tom Arnold as a moronic, violent fundamentalist who takes umbrage to the whole thing. 

Tonally and aesthetically, Touch doesn’t feel at all like a Schrader picture, but it’s nice to see him having fun despite the ill fit. Ulrich is sexy and slithery, with a devilish little goatee that makes you question his motives and wonder if he’s not the innocent he pretends to be. Fonda is in full film noir mode, sultry but with a girl-next-door charm, while Walken, who only signed up for the part if Schrader agreed to not direct his performance at all, shows up to church wearing a big-ass gold chain that says “THANK YOU JESUS.” There’s entertainment to be had here, though even Schrader acknowledges to this day (in the special features of Cinématographe’s new deluxe limited edition Blu-ray) that “it was an obstacle too high to get over—how to get [Leonard’s] style into that subject matter. The lightness, the tongue-in-cheekness, the ironic nature of it all.” 

16. Light of Day (1987)

Originally designed as a story about two working-class brothers in Cleveland who perform in a rock band while struggling to make ends meet, Schrader shifted the story for Light of Day to that of a brother and sister, played by Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett. Fascinatingly, the script was initially titled Born in the USA and pitched to Bruce Springsteen when the Jersey rocker was considering a dive into movie stardom; although Springsteen backed out, he still lifted the title for his legendary album (Schrader is given a thanks in the album’s insert sleeve). We can only wonder how Springsteen would have fared in the role, but as it stands, one of Light of Day’s biggest issues is its casting. Fox and Jett aren’t believable as roughing-it blue collar types, and their brother-sister chemistry is decidedly off. 

Light of Day does thrive in two specific areas: Schrader’s return to the working-class sensibilities of Blue Collar and capturing the daily grind that most musicians go through in pursuing their passion. He’s explained that “many rock-and-roll movies revolve around the Cinderella myth of fame and wealth and girls, and what is missed in all those films is that rock and roll has a day-to-day practical function in the lives of thousands of people and thousands of little bands in thousands of little cities all over the world, and that all these little bands just go and kick it out on the weekends. They may have dreams of glory, but what it’s really about is release. So I didn’t want to make a movie about fantasy, I wanted to make a movie about the realities of rock and roll.” 

There’s an authenticity to that specific aspect of Light of Day that reminded me of being in my twenties and watching so many of my friends jobbing around trying to make a living while they toured with their bands at night, making scraps and neglecting their transition into adulthood because they were trying to hang onto something closer to their heart. Schrader excels here, yet where Light of Day is most potent is actually in the portrayal of the parents, played by Gena Rowlands and Jason Miller. The father is devastatingly passive, aware of all the discord in the family, including the fact that his wife is gradually losing her mind day by day, but ignoring it completely because it’s too much to deal with. There’s a scene where he tells his daughter that he and his wife barely talk, that there’s essentially no love or communication between them, and that this is nice and pleasant and uncomplicated. It’s devastating. 

The emotional core of the film lies in the relationship between Rowlands and Jett’s characters, with us witnessing the rift between them, as the mother doesn’t support Jett’s pursuit of her musical ambitions. Schrader considered Light of Day an inverse of Hardcore; that film captured his relationship with his father, Light of Day with his mother. This was specifically true in the deathbed reconciliation between the mother and daughter, in which Rowlands asks, “Have I done anything so terrible that I can’t be forgiven?” It’s the most Schrader moment of the whole picture, and according to the director that whole scene “is more or less word for word what I went through with my mother.”

15. Dog Eat Dog (2016)

Out of the remnants of Dying of the Light’s disastrous release, Schrader emerged like a phoenix with a new passion to make cinema on his terms. He told me that his next move was “saying to [Nicolas Cage], ‘I want to right this wrong. I want to do a film with you, and I want to get final cut, and if you take a price cut, we can do it.’” The result was Dog Eat Dog, a chaotic film but by all accounts a smooth production. It was Schrader’s realization that technology was at a place where he could make pictures on smaller budgets in quicker amounts of time, giving studios a return on investment that allowed him to ensure final cut and make things his way. 

It’s a model he’s followed ever since to great results, and while his next film First Reformed would usher in the full Schrader renaissance, Dog Eat Dog certainly kicked things off. Right from the jump, the director is throwing new and exciting things at the wall, opening with a stylistically gonzo sequence in which a gun nut on television is prophesying that the whole world would be safer if everyone had a gun, then pulling back to reveal Willem Dafoe (in a completely pink room with floral wallpaper) watching the TV, snorting a line of coke, then throwing his head back to reveal an eye tattoo under his chin. He gets up (going into a completely blue room) to shoot up some heroin before his ex-girlfriend comes home, which is when he cuts her throat and shoots her teenage daughter. Five minutes into this thing, and Schrader is not holding back. 

Dog Eat Dog overflows with rage but also a sense of fun and experimentation, with the director populating the crew primarily with first-timers just out of film school. That combustible, exciting energy is matched by his actors, with Cage channeling Humphrey Bogart just for the hell of it and Dafoe going full-on Wild at Heart wild man. Dog Eat Dog is ultimately about male friendship, the bonds you build for life, and Dafoe has a heartbreaking sequence where he talks about how it’s okay that one of his best friends doesn’t like him because he doesn’t like himself either There is a lot going on here, including Schrader in his only acting appearance (as a character named Greco the Greek). Sure, not all of it works, but it’s a ball to see a then-70-year-old filmmaker getting his juice back.

14. Adam Resurrected (2008)

When speaking of Touch, Schrader said, “Over the years, I tend to have been sent scripts and books that no one else wanted to touch. Patty Hearst came to me because nobody could figure out how to shoot it, and Touch came to me because no one could figure out how to mix religiosity and vulgar humor. But it never bothered me. And perhaps one of my career difficulties is that I don’t weigh the consequences that heavily. If it seems like it might be fun to do, and I think I can pull it off, I do it.” One can’t imagine that the prospect of taking on Yoram Kaniuk’s 1969 novel Adam Resurrected seemed “fun” per se, but a challenge no doubt. In that sense, it’s easy to see why Schrader jumped at the opportunity to tell the story of Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum), a Holocaust survivor being treated in an Israeli psychiatric asylum for people suffering survivor’s guilt. 

Through flashbacks, we learn of Stein’s past as a stage comedian before the war, where part of his act involved him pretending to be a dog, which amused the off-putting, dim German Commandant Klein (Willem Dafoe). Cut to the concentration camps, and when Klein and Adam are reunited, the officer forces Adam to be his dog in a literal sense, chewing on bones, wearing a leash and residing in his offices. It’s a grueling watch, with the story taking us to escalating heights of tragedy and humiliation for Adam, none more so than watching him forced to play fiddle while Jews, including his own wife and daughter, are taken to the gas chambers. 

Chances are some of the thornier elements of Adam Resurrected come across stronger in the novel, as they feel more literary than cinematic in concept, yet Schrader’s preoccupations with how we go on surviving in a world of cruelty are all over this picture. The director brilliantly utilizes Goldblum’s mercurial charm and comedic presence to untether us from our preconceptions, while understanding the gravitas of a man wholly succumbing to survivor’s guilt. There’s too much going on in Adam Resurrected overall, but when it’s working it’s really working.

13. Master Gardener (2023)

The third in Schrader’s recent “God’s Lonely Man” trilogy, Master Gardener came at a major turning point for the filmmaker. During a press conference at the film’s Venice premiere, the director said, “I used to be an artist who never wanted to leave this world without saying ‘fuck you,’ and now I’m an artist who never wants to leave the world without saying ‘I love you.’” This is a reference to the S.G. Goodman song “Space and Time”, which closes out Master Gardener, and it speaks to his aging evolution into someone who cherishes what there is in this world—a man who sees the good maybe a little more now than the bad. 

Particularly as he’s grappled with difficult bouts of health and his wife Mary Beth Hurt’s worsening Alzheimer’s, Master Gardener exposes a nurturing quality to Schrader that parallels the profession of the immaculately named Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a horticulturist whose life is devoted to delicately setting up living beings to blossom at their own speed. “Gardening is a belief in the future,” Narvel says, “A belief that things will happen according to plan. That change will come in its due time.” A gardener might not seem like a natural next step for Schrader’s Lonely Men, whose jobs are always transactional and often delve into the seedier realms of sex and crime, but Narvel fits right alongside First Reformed’s priest and The Card Counter’s gambler—men largely removed from the confines of society, whose daily routines are charted mostly in isolation, their nights spent scribbling existential thoughts into journals. 

Like with so many of Schrader’s men, a woman awakens Narvel from his self-imposed hibernation: Maya (Quintessa Swindell), the troubled great-niece of Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), the domineering dowager of Gracewood Gardens where Narvel is employed. Master Gardener received mildly positive notices upon release, with the biggest knock against it being that it can feel in some areas that Schrader is retreading too-familiar ground. An understandable response (though this is the third part of a trilogy, after all), but what sets Master Gardener apart is its overwhelming tenderness. The bond that forms between Narvel and Maya is enchanting, two lost souls finding solace in one another, crescendoing in a gorgeous, transcendental sequence in which they drive down a road at night and the greenery surrounding them springs to immense, extra-natural life. 

12. Patty Hearst (1988)

Biographical films are rare to come by in Paul Schrader’s filmography, so when he takes one on chances are they’re not going to be your typical Oscar-bait. That’s the case with Patty Hearst, a bold and confrontational approach to the story of the student and heiress (granddaughter of Willam Randolph Hearst), her time held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army and her transformation into an active follower of the movement via purported brainwashing. The picture takes place over the span of 19 months, tracing the time from Hearst’s abduction to her eventual apprehension and arrest, something which presented more of an obstacle to Schrader than he may have initially been expecting. In a recent interview on the film’s Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray, he states that if he made it today he wouldn’t make it as a film, but instead as a six- or eight-part limited series, as condensing so much time and so many characters makes the film unruly. Nevertheless, Patty Hearst thrives on Schrader’s ability to give this sensational story a totally new perspective, one that people didn’t seem interested in at the time: Hearst’s side of things. 

Adapted from Hearst’s memoir Every Secret Thing, Schrader’s film takes us inside her perspective for the entirety, never skewing outside of that point-of-view. “If the first third takes place in a closet with a blindfolded girl, that means the only reality that exists is her imagination and so I can do anything I want,” he says. “I saw that not as a problem but as an inviting challenge, and for me that still is the best part of the film.” I agree. The first act of Patty Hearst holds us in captivity with Hearst while she is blindfolded and locked in a closet, only given brief glances of lights and shadows piercing through when her captors open it up to bark doctrine at her or re-educate her to remove her from her bourgeois upbringing. (When she asks “May I use the restroom?” she’s instructed to instead say “I gotta pee.”) With the impressionistic, evocative cinematography of Bojan Bazelli used to fix us in this warped time and space, we start to succumb ourselves to this sensorial removal. 

As Hearst, remarkably portrayed by Natasha Richardson, is brought more into the fold of the SLA and becomes a contributing member, the media coverage takes a decided turn. Schrader invites us to question why this kidnapped woman becomes nothing more than a symbol for each side. She’s nothing but propaganda for everyone’s cause, be it the system or the revolutionaries, and what Patty Hearst does is restore her voice. Its most powerful statement arrives in its final moments, when Hearst plainly declares, “Fuck them all.”

11. Cat People (1982)

While many Schrader films focus on solitary men whose self-imposed isolation from society is untethered by the arrival of a woman, Cat People focuses more on the woman herself. A remake of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 film of the same name, the ethereal Nastassja Kinski stars as Irena, an orphan we meet as she arrives in New Orleans to reunite with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). As she learns more about her brother and her lineage, a series of murders occur in the area, somehow linked to a black leopard. A romance begins between Irena and Oliver (John Heard), the curator of the zoo where this panther has been detained. 

Cat People was the first film Schrader directed that he hadn’t written, stating that, due to difficulties getting his own projects off the ground, he wanted “to do a genre film, a horror film, a special-effects film that will not be about me, and that will be a very salutary exercise.” Despite being his sole (explicit) remake and his first rare venture into horror, Schrader would eventually describe Cat People as “almost the most personal film I’ve done.” While your standard Schrader picture would focus on Oliver, and his awakening via Irena, the irony here is that it takes on an almost autobiographical quality by being so entranced by Irena herself. “During the actual shooting of the film I became involved with Nastassja Kinski and became obsessed with her,” Schrader explains. “So the story of the film started to become very personal, so much so that I wasn’t really aware of how perverse it was getting.”

In the same release year as the third entries in the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, where horror was going for cheap and easy thrills to appeal to teenagers, Schrader took the genre in an evocative, heavily stylized direction while drawing a parallel from Irena and Oliver to Dante and Beatrice, along with inspiration from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus, all detailing this theme of primal obsession. With the strumming tones of Giorgio Moroder’s exquisite score (including the theme song with lyrics from David Bowie, which would later be repurposed for an iconic sequence in Inglourious Basterds), Cat People is Schrader’s most overtly carnal picture, using horror to explore repression, intimacy and desire. 

10. The Card Counter (2021)

Routine is one of Schrader’s favorite recurring themes, and William Tell (Oscar Isaac) is a man of routine. He wakes up, he hits the casino floor, he plays cards, he goes back to his room, he writes in his journal, he goes to bed. His philosophy, as he tells La Linda (Tiffany Haddish)—who is essentially a pimp for a stable of gamblers and interested in recruiting Tell—is to bet just big enough to make a profit, but never so big that he draws the fervor of the casino owners. He never stays in hotel casinos, preferring motels to avoid attention. He lives out of two small suitcases and covers his motel room furniture with bed sheets and twine. William Tell doesn’t exist, and that’s exactly how he likes it. His days are spent in a void, a vacant wasteland of souls cycling in and out of spaces with no attachments.

“They have commercials where they show people have fun in casinos,” Schrader said, “but I’ve never seen anybody have any fun in casinos. It’s like going into the zombie zone, a kind of purgatory.” There is indeed an intentional emptiness that permeates The Card Counter as we are enveloped in Tell’s life, only startled out of that haze when he is forced to confront what we discover is the thing he’s using all of this monotony to hide from: his past as a torturer in Abu Ghraib. The Card Counter has the polished sheen of a slick movie about gambling, and like so many of Schrader’s pictures he uses this to lull you into a false sense of thinking you know what you’re watching before the rug is pulled from underneath you. 

The Card Counter ties back to the filmmaker’s fixation on redemption and who is capable of earning it. Is it up to others to say you’re worthy, that you’re a good person? When you’ve done the kinds of heinous things Tell has done, is there ever a possibility of coming back? “He can’t just be a murderer, he has to have done something that shamed the nation, something that cannot be forgiven,” Schrader explained, going on to say that “we live in a culture where no one is really responsible for anything,” but that he comes “from a culture where it’s just the opposite, where you’re responsible for everything. I sort of imagined myself as someone who did something that can’t be forgiven. He went to jail, but he still hasn’t been punished enough. And what did he do? How does he keep punishing himself?” 

Returning in these later years to the things that have constantly haunted him, Schrader finds renewed life in those observations on moral depravity, of the innate hollowness of just getting by. The Card Counter is sterile, hollowed out, with a steely, clinical performance from Isaac, and in that emptiness it finds a wealth of resonance. 

9. Hardcore (1979)

When Paul Schrader speaks critically of a film like Dying of the Light, it’s not a huge surprise. But it can be surprising to learn that Schrader doesn’t have many kind words for Hardcore, his second feature as a director and arguably the one that has had the most cultural resonance—at least one of its scenes, anyway. Whether you’ve seen Hardcore or not, you’ve likely witnessed some variation of the moment in which strict Calvinist Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) watches a pornographic film featuring his missing teenage daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) having sex with two men. Van Dorn writhes in pain and bellows “Turn it off!” It’s become a well-worn meme for mocking atrocious things we’d rather not bear witness to. 

So why, despite numerous revival showings and boutique Blu-ray releases touting Hardcore as one of Schrader’s finest, doesn’t the director care for it? For one, he feels the film draws too firm a line between the puritanical Van Dorn (largely based on his own strict Calvinist father) and the seedy underbelly of the sex world the man must venture into while trying to find his daughter. Hardcore is, in Schrader’s words, his most autobiographical picture (along with Light of Day), so one must wonder how much impact that has on his opinion towards it. Jake Van Dorn captures both sides of the Schrader coin: his father’s repulsion with the debauched world our leading figure dives into, and Paul’s own fascination with and seduction by it. Hardcore is a reckoning of a man and a country at a time when sex was becoming more commercialized and the sex industry was more public-facing than ever. You can’t hide from it any longer. It’s right in your home, taking your daughter and showing her the world you never wanted her to see. 

Each scene reveals something new about this world and its inhabitants. The police don’t care about Van Dorn’s cries that a young girl has been (allegedly) kidnapped and forced into this space—she’s just another sex fiend to them, like anyone who would get involved with pornography. Schrader feels that the film sides too much with Van Dorn and his rejection of modern culture, but Hardcore presents a more nuanced view. Despite the absurdity of Van Dorn’s moral code and the many paradoxes that emerge over the course of the film, Schrader can’t help having some inherent sympathy for him. He’s a human at all times. 

There’s sympathy and dimensionality to those involved in the sex industry. Not in the sense of “Oh, how bad that they got involved in this world,” but in seeing them as human beings with their own thoughts, feelings, dreams, desires—many of them revolving around the idea of being seen, of being wanted, of being allowed the freedom to figure out who they are and have that identity be embraced by someone. The most tragic character isn’t Kristen, and it’s certainly not Jake—it’s Niki (a remarkable Season Hubley), the sex worker who is used up and spit out, exploited in ways that don’t have anything to do with sex.

The one spot where I’ll agree with Schrader is the ending, which, after everything we’ve gone through, feels too pat and tidily resolved for the Van Dorns. Naturally, this was a studio-mandated shift from Schrader’s original ending, in which Van Dorn discovers that his daughter died in a car accident—a random folly of life, completely unrelated to the narrative. He must return home and deal with everything he’s discovered, with no resolution. A chilling denouement that would have better fit the tone of the picture, but the ending we have doesn’t deter too much from everything leading up to it. As for what Schrader’s father thought when he saw the film? “He said that he was glad my mother wasn’t alive to see it,” the director says. 

8. American Gigolo (1980)

“I felt that I had arrived as a director,” Schrader says of his third feature American Gigolo. It’s easy to see why. As excellent as his first two films are, Gigolo bolts out of the gate with Richard Gere’s Julian Kay barreling down the highway as Blondie’s rapturous “Call Me” plays. We’ve got an auteur behind the wheel. Someone with a distinct vision, who’s going to take us for a ride. As the title suggests, Julian is a sex worker who makes his trade delivering pleasure to women—like many Schrader characters, he’s a man who exists in transactional relationships. He appears in people’s lives for flashes at a time, provides a service for them, and then disappears just as quickly. They don’t have to think of him as a human being, he is only what he provides for them. 

These professions have fascinated Schrader over his career—the taxi driver, the priest, the gambler, the drug dealer—and sexuality provides a particular allure to Gigolo. As Schrader explained when developing the film (back when John Travolta was set to star), “The character in Taxi Driver was compulsively nonsexual. The character in American Gigolo is compulsively sexual. He is a man who receives his identity by giving sexual pleasure but has no concept of receiving sexual pleasure.” Casting Gere (who was always Schrader’s first choice) proved a master stroke, with the actor’s breathtaking handsomeness falling on just the right side of dastardly to make you question who this guy really is, what he’s all about. “I realized that the character of the gigolo was essentially a character of surfaces,” Schrader says, “Therefore the movie had to be about surfaces, and you had to create a new kind of Los Angeles to reflect this new kind of protagonist.” 

Schrader brought in outsiders like Giorgio Armani, Ferdinando Scarfiotti and Giorgio Moroder to create the lush, bold and utterly unique aesthetic of American Gigolo, ushering us into a world that was so entranced by what’s on top that they’re unable to look at what’s underneath. Influences like Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and essentially everything Bresson (but especially Pickpocket), let Schrader approach Gigolo as a story removed from eroticism—a delightful irony for something about a gorgeous gigolo. 

“The trick of the film—and I guess if I ever try to do anything resembling transcendental style this might be it,” Schrader said (admittedly before he made First Reformed), “is to try and create an essentially cold film in which a burst of emotion transforms it at the end, which is why I had the audacity to take the end of Bresson’s Pickpocket and put it in there.” Schrader would later tell me that he didn’t think the Pickpocket ending, which he has now used several times across his filmography, quite fit on Gigolo and he just put it there because he loves it so much. I’d argue it’s the exact right crescendo to close out our journey with Julian Kay and leave him with the promise of a future that goes beyond the superficial. 

7. The Comfort of Strangers (1991)

While Cat People is Schrader’s most overtly carnal picture, The Comfort of Strangers is his most viciously sexual. Harold Pinter adapted the script from Ian McEwan’s novel centered on unmarried English couple Colin and Mary (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson), vacationing in Venice where they meet the luxurious Robert and Caroline (Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren), two children of diplomats living in a spacious apartment who begin to invite the younger couple over. The Comfort of Strangers fits, in its own strange way, into the mold of horror pictures like Funny Games, The Vanishing and Speak No Evil in how the performance of social niceties and the unwillingness to seem rude plunges these young yuppies into a clearly dangerous situation they might not be able to escape from. 

In a role initially offered to Al Pacino, Walken is perfectly cast for his cool combination of charm and menace, while Mirren’s elegant beauty exquisitely hides the fragility lurking just underneath this woman who seems trapped inside their apartment, like a bird in a gilded cage. Exquisite is the word for The Comfort of Strangers (Schrader refers to it as his best-directed film), as the filmmaker packs this puppy with sensorial splendor: costumes by Armani, Dante Spinotti’s breathtaking cinematography, an entrancing score from Angelo Badalementi. This lushness captivates us in the same fashion that Robert and Caroline draw Colin and Mary in, with Schrader remarking that “physical beauty is, in and of itself, dangerous: it’s threatening, it’s destructive.” As the young couple receives red flag after red flag, from Caroline watching them as they sleep to Robert straight-up punching Colin in the gut, they somehow keep returning to this increasingly threatening abode. 

The Comfort of Strangers could have been pitched as more of a direct horror picture, but its trappings as a Merchant-Ivory drama give it an even greater appeal as a Trojan Horse into terror. “The story was so tawdry that I wanted to make it seductive and attractive, to polish the apple until it absolutely shone, so that you would be enticed to take a bite out of it and then find your mouth full of decay,” Schrader explained. Everything is a whir in The Comfort of Strangers, an excitement for a waning couple looking for reasons to stay together…and finding that maybe you shouldn’t go down the dark alleys of Venice with a white-suited stranger who approaches you at 2 AM.

6. Auto Focus (2002)

A biopic of Hogan’s Heroes television star Bob Crane wouldn’t be a project most people would expect Paul Schrader to take on, especially if you only have tangential knowledge of Crane. But looking deeper at Crane’s projection as an all-American family man hiding his sex addiction, with this double life ultimately leading to a violent death—well that’s Schrader all over, isn’t it? Auto Focus is an excoriating exposé on the rot of fame, celebrity and parasocial relationships that’s also laced with the filmmaker’s predilection for the toxicity lurking underneath the façade of puritanical religion. 

“This is a character not unlike characters I’ve done before,” Schrader says of Crane, “who have a disconnect in their lives, who want one thing but do another, see themselves as one thing but behave in a counter-productive way.” The distinction here, he explains, is that “when I’ve done these characters before, they usually have some degree of introspection and a clouded sense of self-awareness… they’re trying to figure out why it doesn’t work, why they can’t get what they want” but that Crane remains until the very end “superficial” and “clueless.” 

For the lead, Schrader made a genius, unexpected move by tapping Greg Kinnear, who was mostly known for soft parts like the assault victim in As Good As It Gets or the nice guy who doesn’t get the girl in You’ve Got Mail. Kinnear had just the right amount of vanilla surface, that almost deceptively neighborly aura. He can grin and charm you, but you know there’s something sinister lurking within. (It’s amusing that he would eventually tackle full-on spiritual pictures like Heaven Is for Real and Sight.) 

While Schrader has toyed with queer undertones in films like American Gigolo, Auto Focus would be a rare overtly homosexual text thanks to its focus on the bizarre, codependent bond formed between Crane and John Henry Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), an electronics expert who flirts in Hollywood circles. The casting is the greatest strength of Auto Focus, as Schrader describes how Willem “would give Greg Kinnear the confidence to go into these waters.” Carpenter was more of a tertiary character in the original script, but when Schrader came on board he brought this relationship fully into focus, seeing the innate humanity that Carpenter possesses and trusting Dafoe to bring that to the surface. This character could have easily been portrayed as a twisted little devil, a creepy little gremlin on Crane’s shoulder luring him into this sick world. Instead, Carpenter is an achingly human, almost pathetic hanger-on. He wants the attention he gets from being latched onto celebrities, but really just wants to be somebody—and isn’t that more or less what Crane wants? 

It’s no wonder that Schrader was so fascinated by Crane’s story, as beyond the dark lure of celebrity there’s also insight into the ways that burgeoning technology warped a man’s understanding of the world and of himself. He becomes more obsessed with watching the sex acts on videotape alone, after they’ve happened, than the acts themselves. A man once so fixated on his dream of being adored on the big screen now finds himself the star of his own dirty home movies, and he gets hard as a rock every time—including in one jerk-off scene with Crane and Carpenter that you have to see to believe. When you get to the final, haunting line of “men gotta have fun,” you know exactly why this is a Paul Schrader picture. 

5. Affliction (1998)

Paul Schrader is never going to be mistaken for a gentle filmmaker. His work is harsh, it reckons with some of the most difficult questions we can ask ourselves. Yet there’s often levity mixed in amongst the anguish. Hell, Auto Focus is a laugh riot despite its brutality. Affliction has no light. Adapted from a novel by Russell Banks, brought to the screen after nearly 10 years of development, this wintry tale begins as a somewhat conventional murder mystery, where Sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) investigates the death of a wealthy businessman during a hunting accident. 

That setup proves to be another of Schrader’s Trojan Horses, with the director explaining, “My real attraction to it, the thing I loved, was that it was a story pretending to be something else: sort of meandering around, leading you to believe that a murder mystery was afoot. And then, in the book and in the film, about two-thirds of the way through, you realize that there was no murder, and that this is a character study, and this man has gone crazy.” What begins as an intriguing mystery becomes a descent into madness, unraveling this man and exposing the brutality that has long been dormant, waiting underneath the surface for the right circumstances to come about. Whitehouse is subtly picked apart by small disturbances, like a gnawing toothache and his fractured relationship with a daughter who clearly doesn’t care for him. Schrader intelligently weaves these into this building sense of aggression and frustration. 

As these minor distractions plague him, Whitehouse continues his investigation, but what comes more into focus is his chaotic relationship with his father (James Coburn). This father-son dynamic has made Whitehouse so disturbed, his father a terrifying bastard who abused him as a child while he drank himself into short-tempered rages. Affliction hones in on masculinity and the demons that men inherit from one another. What kind of impact does this abuse have? Is Whitehouse a bad man at heart, or was he made that way? 

Schrader’s films have never been ones to garner much awards attention, but despite financial struggles and a limited release, Affliction notched an Oscar nod for Nolte and a win for Coburn. The latter is a terrifying force—even when he’s not in a rage, you can feel it in the air, the fear that it can come at any moment. As far as his leading man goes, “Nick’s performance carries the film,” Schrader says, “because you have a situation where the character is predestined—he’s doomed. You know from the first line of the film that he will fail, and disappear. Yet throughout it all, Nick manages to keep you sort of rooting for him. ‘Come on, Wade! Just get it together, you’ll be alright…’” 

Nolte’s work is the finest of his career. He was initially cast back when he was declared People’s Sexiest Man Alive in the early ‘90s (the film finally coming to fruition when he had a more gruff exterior), and his startling vulnerability is at its best. The actor allows you to sympathize with Whitehouse, perhaps even empathize, which makes his unbridled descent all the more wrenching. There’s a scene, where he completely explodes on a tirade about how this town needs him, which leaves you unable to move—a towering display of machismo in the face of potential emasculation.

Affliction is told via narration through the outside perspective of Whitehouse’s younger brother (Willem Dafoe), a gentler man who has moved away from this town and removed himself from the hostile environment of his brother and their father. That distance provides a further chill to the whole affair, with Rolfe opening the film with the line, “In telling the story of my brother I am telling my own story as well,” and at the end saying, “Why can’t I let it go? Why can’t I sell the house?” This abuse ripples out endlessly, with Schrader describing how “At one level, you’re watching the disintegration of a man, Wade, and his problems with male violence and his father. At another level, you’re watching a movie about the younger brother, who’s observing this situation, and has withdrawn from the conflict, and in fact envies his older brother for being on the frontlines.” It’s a surprising approach that makes the ache of Affliction linger all the longer. 

4. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters might seem like a departure for Paul Schrader. But his biopic of Japanese renaissance man Yukio Mishima (celebrated author, poet, actor and devoted nationalist) interrogates living in the world as an artist who feels like words aren’t able to have enough of an immediate impact (if any at all) and direct action’s impact is too fleeting. You can see how this would appeal to Schrader.

Early in the film, Mishima (portrayed primarily by Ken Ogata) reflects, “When I examine my early childhood, I see myself as a boy leaning at the window—forever watching a world I was unable to change, forever hoping it would change by itself.” Schrader is an artist constantly in turmoil watching us destroy one another and the world we inhabit, feeling hopeless to do anything about it. For Schrader’s characters, the answer can often be suicide, either from that hopelessness or as an attempted act of self-sacrifice, and Mishima often ruminates on the idea of a “perfect” death. The best time to die, the best way to die, how your death could be most useful. 

As Schrader puts it, “I do believe that the life is his final work and I believe that Mishima saw it that way too. He saw all his output as a whole, from the tacky semi-nude photographs to the Chinese poetry to the Dostoevskian novels to his private army—it was all Mishima. And the public, particularly the Japanese public, wanted to slice it up into bits that they could appreciate and he refused to let them. He said, ‘If you accept me, you have to accept the high and the low; it’s all part of my output.’” To approach the sheer enormity of Mishima, Schrader created a bold structure that incorporates several Mishima adaptations spliced between conventional biopic sections, as well as recurring bounces back to his final moments, where he and several of his followers take a commandant hostage and then Mishima dies by seppuku. 

Mishima’s right-wing ideology and reactionary beliefs, in opposition to Japan’s post-war democracy, aren’t the focal point in Schrader’s film. Rather, it’s the connection between an artist’s life and their work, along with the director’s belief that the suicidal impulse has to do “with the artistic impulse to transform the world.” In regards to Mishima’s politics, Schrader theorizes “that it was all theatre—well, that’s not fair: say 75% theatre. He did have a fixation on the Emperor and he did have a very strong sexual fixation on militarism, but his interests were primarily ritualistic and artistic.”

Mishima utilizes its unique structure to fully examine notions of honor, vanity, pride, self-worth and even some deep dives into homosexuality and transness compellingly rooted in the idea of the body—how the body is a primal creation of art that can be sculpted and destroyed. That care for aesthetics is reflected in the breathtaking design of the film: Cinematographer John Bailey and production designer Eiko Ishioka craft distinct visual styles for each section, while Philip Glass’ operatic score bellows deep into your soul from its first notes. Mishima feels epic, yet is deceptively minimalist and intimate in its construction. Another of its many impressive paradoxes.

3. Blue Collar (1978)

For the last 50 years, Schrader’s work has wrestled with finding hope amidst the aching realization of how little we matter in a world built to destroy us. We’re born only to die. Through films like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Light Sleeper and The Card Counter, he toes the line between fatalism and a longing for meaning. Yet, if there’s a motion picture that declares “fuck you” loudly and proudly, it would be Schrader’s first as a director: Blue Collar. The film follows a trio of auto line workers in Wayne County, Michigan, beleaguered by mistreatment from management as well as their union reps. The guys who are supposed to be looking out for them are the ones screwing them the most, and that catalyzes their plan to get even. Zeke (Richard Pryor), Smokey (Yaphet Kotto) and Jerry (Harvey Keitel) will rob the safe at the union’s headquarters to help clear their debts, all while sticking it to the men who are sticking it to them.

Schrader and his brother Leonard’s script shrewdly navigates the narrative layers unfolded over the course of Blue Collar, while his authorial vision strikes a delicate tonal balance between heist thrills, workplace drama, social commentary and nerve-wracking suspense. He keeps our interests rooted at all times with this trio of characters, and through them pursues important conversations around labor exploitation and the perpetual dehumanization of the workforce under capitalism.

For as much as Blue Collar is about class hierarchy and the disparity between management, union and worker, it’s also intrinsically about race—something evidenced even in the genesis of the film. As Schrader notes on the film’s commentary track, in trying to sell the film as being about “two Black guys and a white guy,” people would respond by asking if he meant to say “two white guys and a Black guy.” For the director, it was crucial to use this film to highlight how the unions were just as guilty as management, while also drawing out the distinct differences in this economy between Black workers and white workers.

The dramatic tension between the central characters, often stemming from their race, was further cemented by the tension between the actors on set. Schrader has spoken at length about the vitriol that flew between his three leads: “I hired three bulls and asked them to come into a china shop, and I promised each of those bulls that they would be the lead actor… It became a real ego struggle about who would win the day.” Schrader details a particularly intense moment on set, in which Pryor’s long off-script rant led to Keitel speaking directly into the camera in order to ruin the take. “Even before I cut, Richard was on Harvey, fists were flying,” Schrader says, explaining that Pryor and his bodyguard were wailing on Keitel before Schrader himself got involved and the fight was broken up. Pryor insisted that the film was responsible for him relapsing into cocaine addiction; at one point he pulled a gun on Schrader and told the director there was no way he would ever do more than three takes for a scene. 

“It’s so spooky watching Richard. He was the unhappiest person I ever met in my life,” the director says on the commentary. In just one effort behind the camera—one that caused him to have a nervous breakdown and consider never directing again—Schrader experienced as much tumult as many filmmakers will across their entire careers. All of this discord has seeped into the blood and sweat of Blue Collar, a film etched in the righteous fury of those beaten down by a system founded on having boots on the necks of the workers at all times. We’re lucky that Schrader got back in the saddle for a lengthy, topsy-turvy career in the decades since, but if this had been his swan song, it would have sent him out on a high note.

2. Light Sleeper (1992)

Finding hope in the films of Paul Schrader can feel like a lost cause, but it’s usually there. You’ve just got to look a little harder. That search for something to hang onto is present almost immediately in Light Sleeper, which follows the exploits of John LeTour (Willem Dafoe), a mid-level New York drug dealer nearing 40. In the opening moments, LeTour rides around in the back of a car, gazing out at the city’s denizens through the window while Michael Been’s doom-laden “World on Fire” blares on the soundtrack. The message is clear: The world is coming down around him, and LeTour is merely bearing witness.

Describing it as his “midlife movie” and also his “most personal film,” Schrader is in a transitional phase with Light Sleeper. While Hardcore deals with a man’s resistance to the sex-filled world his daughter’s generation is coming up in, and First Reformed grapples with the overwhelming despair at the damage mankind has wrought upon our earth, Light Sleeper is about one man’s relationship with the world around him. Where does he fit in? Does he fit in at all? A former addict now clean, LeTour makes his trade in selling to those not as lucky as him to kick the habit. His existence is a transient one, floating into people’s lives to exchange goods for cash, and floating out just as easily. If he disappeared, they’d simply find someone else to replace him. Like those other great Schrader loners, he’s a man who offers something to a world that doesn’t give him much in return. He’s a ghost, observing the fall of everything around him. He hears the thoughts of his clients, people more than happy to unload their basest ideas onto this total stranger. To the clients, he’s merely a figment.

Schrader wrote the script with the idea that the main character had three ways to express himself: dialogue, diary and narration, and in the music which would chronicle his journey. From that opening use of “World on Fire,” Been’s vocals and melancholic tones feel as rooted in the essence of Light Sleeper as Dafoe’s razor-sharp bone structure, or the heaps of trash bags lining the sidewalks as a garbage strike ensues. It’s not technically LeTour singing these songs, but it may as well be, as Been’s music takes us along the emotional throughline of the film and gives us the interiority of LeTour that we aren’t able to experience through his spoken words. These specific forms of communication allow us full insight into his perspective as he wanders this lonely, desolate world.

LeTour’s search for hope arrives in the form of Marianne (Dana Delany), a former flame who circles back into his life at just the right time, giving him an opportunity for salvation. After the two sleep together, LeTour writes in his journal that he can change, he can be a better person. What a strange thing to realize halfway through your life that you can change, he thinks. What luck. Yet, the push for redemption is met with resistance by the world around him. Murders lead the cops towards him; a teenage victim was found with drugs, and he’s a known dealer. It all collides in a violent shootout—something Schrader didn’t want, but the studio demanded. “If I had been able to come up with something better or if I had final cut, I probably wouldn’t have done that,” he told me. “So I ended up with the shootout. What I tried to do to mitigate it in that case was I made the shootout part of a song ballad. Which I think helped to throw it off.”

LeTour survives the gunfire, but is incarcerated as a result. While in prison, he’s visited by Ann (Susan Sarandon), his boss in the drug game who is looking to go clean by transitioning into the cosmetic industry. It’s not the first time Schrader would draw a direct parallel to the ending of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, in which the lead is imprisoned but finds himself optimistic about the future—but it is the most effective instance. LeTour tells Ann, “I’ve been looking forward,” and now they can look forward to a brighter future together. Maybe there’s still some hope left.

1. First Reformed (2018)

40 years after his directorial debut, Paul Schrader came full-circle with First Reformed—all the way back to the films that made him fall in love with cinema as an intellectual, an observer of the world. Due to the restrictions of Calvinism, Schrader didn’t see a movie until he was 17 years old, and it wasn’t until college, where he was introduced to ‘60s European cinema, that his passion for the artform really sparked. That’s what led him to write Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, but it wasn’t until First Reformed that Schrader would make his own picture in the transcendental style. 

There are three stages in a transcendental film: “First is the presentation of the ‘everyday,’ a world without emotion or meaning. Into this stylized world comes an element of disparity, an irrational commitment or passion on the part of a character or group, which leads to action revealing the co-presence of the transcendent and factual. The final stage is marked by a return to the stylization of the everyday, but the viewer is now aware of the presence of the transcendent beneath the surfaces of things.” 

It’s with this approach that Schrader tackles the story of Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the Reverend of a tiny congregation that mostly exists as “a souvenir shop” and has been bought out as a historic site by the hip neighboring evangelical megachurch run by Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). Toller’s clearly been in the throes of deep physical pain for some time; he regularly vomits, has a persistent, guttural cough and pisses blood, but attempts to drown these ailments with a cocktail of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol. “It’s the main character from Diary of a Country Priest, it’s the setting from Winter Light, it’s the ending from Ordet, it’s the levitation from The Sacrifice, and it’s all wrapped together with the barbed wire of Taxi Driver,” Schrader said. “It’s a mistake when you think that any of us do anything new. All we do is reassemble our montages. If you reassemble in an interesting enough way, it will become something new.” 

The Winter Light of it all comes in the form of Michael Mensana (Philip Ettinger), the husband of parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who tells Toller that her husband is in need of his counsel. Michael is plagued by despair; Mary’s pregnancy has him grappling with the guilt of bringing a new life into a world we have destroyed beyond repair. Toller tries to guide Michael, but his efforts are for naught: Michael takes his own life and Toller is left with the emotional wreckage. As Toller attempts to comfort Mary, the two build a strong connection and Toller dives into Michael’s environmental radicalism. “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?” he asks. 

“Life hurts for a lot of people in this world, and the movie in a lot of ways is a cry,” Hawke said of the film in which he gives a career-best performance. “Or a scream. It’s the scream of a very, very refined and fully mature artist saying, ‘Is there anybody out there?’” It’s the accumulation of the questions Schrader has been asking across his entire filmography: We’re all completely doomed, we did it to ourselves, there’s no way to resolve that, so what the hell do we do now? Schrader doesn’t offer a reprieve. He presents reality and allows us to do what we will. “That’s a great thing for an artist to accomplish,” Schrader reflects. “Cleave a crevice in the viewer’s skull that they have to somehow close.” First Reformed confronts us with our deepest, most anguished wails that we ignore to try and simply get through the day. “We live in a world of denial. Before, choosing hope was kind of an option. Now it’s almost a requirement,” the director says. 

The transcendental style strips us from the docile comforts of conventional cinema. “In order to address the spiritual in films, you have to leave room for the viewer to lean in. You can’t do it all for them,” Shrader explains. “You can’t tell them how to feel. You can’t use music to tell them how to feel. You can’t use emotions to tell them how to feel. You have to get them to the place where they come. The whole trick is knowing how to push the viewer back ever so slightly while giving them reason to come forward. So you push them back technically and you try to bring them forward through story and character elements.” 

Journaling and voiceover lets us into Toller’s inner thoughts. Hawke told me that the director “would talk a lot about the power of VO when it’s used right. The trick is that it can never be used as a cheat for furthering the plot. But if it’s used like music, it invites you into an internal experience and it can be really magical.” Schrader directed the actor to give what he refers to as “a recessive performance” that “avoids the audience,” with Hawke explaining that “if it works right, it draws you in and invites you in, and lets you participate, because it doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to think all the time. For Toller, it invites you into his inner mania… On the surface, he has to create a feeling of everything being fine. Inside, there’s kind of an Edvard Munch–like scream happening all the time.” First Reformed is the distillation of the scream inside us all—or at least those of us paying attention. 

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

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