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Retrospective: The Directorial Career Of Paul Schrader

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 5, 2013 at 12:06PM

With the screenplays for Sydney Pollack’s “The Yakuza” (1975), Brian De Palma’s “Obsession” (1976), John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder,” Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980) under his belt, Paul Schrader's legacy as a seminal figure in 1970s American screenwriting was unassailably assured. Yet not only did he go on to write "The Mosquito Coast" and Scorsese's "The Last Temptation Of Christ," he has also enjoyed a long, diverse career as a director, with his most recent foray being released last week: the controversial, chatter-worthy "The Canyons" (you can read our review here).
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Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

"Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" (2005)
In assessing Schrader's "Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist" you kind of have to compare it to the version that was made from the ashes of his original take: "Exorcist: The Beginning," which received a much wider theatrical release. To explain: Schrader directed an Africa-set prequel to "The Exorcist" detailing first demonic counter of Father Merrin (played in the original film Max Von Sydow and here by Stellan Skarsgard), even though this is fairly well-covered ground in both the original film and its totally bananas follow-up. Schrader submitted a nearly completed version, but Warner Bros and Morgan Creek found Schrader's elliptical meditation on the nature of evil, co-scripted by genre great William Wisher and "Alienist" author Caleb Carr, at odds with the punchy scare-fest they were looking for. Almost all of Schrader's footage was scrapped and "Deep Blue Sea" director Renny Harlin came in to reshoot practically the entire movie (even some original cast members, like Gabriel Mann, were swapped out for different actors). Respective takes on the same sequences showcase the directors' different approaches: when a man who collects butterflies commits suicide, Harlin executes it like it's "Return of the Living Dead," with the pinned butterflies fluttering back to life. In Schrader's, the man shoots himself, and as his body slumps to the ground, his clenched fist opens up, revealing a butterfly tucked within. (Harlin's version also cornered the market, pre-"Birdemic," on poorly animated CGI crows.) But while genre fans were anxious to see Schrader's version and eager to dub it a near-classic, it's just not very good, and in some respects fails on even the basic premise that Harlin's inferior movie delivers. While Schrader's version at least hints at the tone of the original ('The Beginning' plays like one of "The Mummy" movies, except with a stillborn baby covered in maggots) and Merrin's time in World War II has more nuance, much of his movie is a draggy bore, despite Skarsgard's complete commitment and Schrader's imaginative photography (it was shot by Vittorio Storaro). And for what is ostensibly Schrader's first horror movie, it's oddly light on the sex and violence that the filmmaker has lovingly embraced in almost all of his previous movies. So while it's fun to compare and contrast the two competing versions of "The Exorcist" prequel, neither one holds a candle to the original; Schrader's might be slightly more interesting, but any more praise than that borders on blasphemy. [C+]

The Walker Harrelson

The Walker” (2007)
“One day everything is fine, the next you’re in an episode of ‘Murder, She Wrote’ “ quips Abigail Delorean (Lily Tomlin) in Paul Schrader’s “The Walker,” a cousin of sorts to “American Gigolo” and “Light Sleeper,” films in which the lead character is in the employ of wealthy or powerful women. This time around, it’s Carter Page (Woody Harrelson), a gay Southern charmer who hangs off the arm of political wives, escorting them around town when their husbands can’t make various social events. Life is nothing more than black tie gatherings and weekly card games with Abigail, Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall) until murder rears its ugly head. Carter soon learns the lesson that are no such things as friends in Washington, and realizes to save himself he’ll have to choose between being disloyal or dishonest. Yet, despite a setting that promises a sharp, taut little thriller, “The Walker” is largely dull and unengaging. Schrader, who also wrote the script, wants to have it both ways, presenting a murder mystery/whodunnit, and also a character study of the empty, poisoned individuals of the Washington elite, but he can never bring the two halves together. The murder plot is as convoluted as it is uninteresting (something to with investments and medical companies and testifying before congress) while the character revelations are hardly incisive (shocker, people in Washington are selfish, phoney and motivated to secure their own ends!). Whatever the film’s more serious intentions might be, they are continually and seriously undercut by the truly brutal score by Anne Dudley, a cringeworthy mix of SOFT FM bloozy guitar licks and Cinemax-at-3-AM horns. It feels ripped out of straight-to-VHS movies from the ‘80s, but not in a fashion that feels knowing (the Bryan Ferry tunes feel wildly out of place as well). But it is partially redeemed by a cast that deserves far better than the material they’re given. Scott-Thomas, Tomlin and Bacall are great, sharing warm chemistry with a very good Harrelson, whose performance as Carter is worn with ease and comfort (though why Schrader takes an actor as interesting as frequent cohort Willem Dafoe and saddles him with the cuckolded husband role that barely amounts to more than a cameo, is beyond us), and Carter’s relationship with his boyfriend is similarly well-drawn. But for all the ingredients Schrader pulls together from his earlier, more successful films, he simply can’t find the right temperature to cook them at here. [C-]

Adam Resurrected Goldblum

Adam Resurrected” (2008)
There’s high camp, and then there’s "Adam Resurrected,” Schrader’s perplexing adaptation of Yoram Kaniuk’s novel about a very particular sort of Holocaust survivor. Suave German Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) rules a small psychiatric hospital, spending his days sweet-talking the women and salaciously seducing the beautiful nurse (Ayelet Zurer), even while he’s haunted by the memories of how he survived the war. Were it not for the cruel kindness of an SS officer (Willem Dafoe), Stein would be dead. Instead, he sees himself as something worse, something less human: he spent his days during the Holocaust avoiding the gas chambers by acting as this soldier’s personal dog, forced to crawl on his hands and knees and live in his office, attached to a leash and eating out of a bowl. What’s telling is the knotty characterization of his kinks, as he can’t get aroused unless his lover pretends to be a dog, yet he teaches a mute runaway boy to also act like a dog, in a manner that’s meant to be more “benevolent.” Goldblum adopts a fairly questionable German accent for the role, adding to the unreality of this peculiar psyche being explored. It’s hard to know what to make of this unusual stew, which is oddly entertaining in spite of its strangeness. It’s more in-tune with late Jodorowsky, particularly “Santa Sangre,” which also mixed sexual perversion with a circus setting (Stein is a former circus performer), complicating the power dynamic implicit in any relationship, sexual or otherwise. Weirdly kinky, if not entirely fully formed, there’s the sense “Adam Resurrected” has no idea how to present a sobering view of such existentially despairing situations, and never completes the journey from fascinating curiosity to great film; Goldblum’s bizarre accent and Walken-esque body language as a highly unlikely ladykiller provides the greatest distance, though there’s the sense a re-edit would have been able to find the narrative within this high-pitched sexual tragedy. [B-]

Paul Schrader's "The Canyons" is in limited release now and available on VOD. Agree or disagree with our summation of Schrader's directorial career? Any film that deserves more love than it got? Let us know below.

--Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Erik McClanahan, Mark Zhuravsky, Oliver Lyttelton


This article is related to: Paul Schrader, Retrospective, Features, Feature, The Canyons


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