Ranking the Paul Schrader Films

Article Updated: 5/20/2023

There is something terribly wrong with the world, and it is destroying us from the inside out.

Paul Schrader is one of the most interesting and talented auteurs since the 70s. Despite having a clear style, a prolific filmography, and a long record of great works over six decades, he somehow has missed out on the accolades and the financial success that many of his peers have experienced. First Reformed and a morbidly hilarious Facebook account have given him increased success and notoriety in the last chapter of his career. He’s also pretty close to being truly uncancelable so it should be smooth sailings from here on out for him to be remembered as one of the greats.


Still need to watch: Light of Day, The Walker


21. Adam Resurrected [2008]

To be openly reductive for a moment, a basic outline for this movie reads like some WWII prestige drama shit designed to get Jeff Goldblum awards. Enter Paul Schrader in a rare (for him) director-for-hire situation. Now, I do not have any insight into what the process of the making of this film was like in any way, but that tension between prestige drama story and Paul Schrader ticks and tendencies was very real regardless. That can be the foundation for something interesting, but it never really got there. Instead, it just felt a mismatch.


20. Forever Mine [1999]

“Everyone is the main character in their lives…they all have their story.”

On the surface, there are some things here of interest or at least that could have been interesting. At its core though, there was just no way Joseph Fiennes was the man to pull this role off. It simply requires him to have qualities of a sexual being that he in no way has ever been on the big or small screen. There is also a darkness to his character that he was never gonna be able to do let alone in conjunction with the pure sexuality.  The margin for error with such a story was going always going to be so small, and Fiennes missed the mark WIDELY. (Ray Liotta’s talent was very clear though, as he had very little work with but managed to pop off the screen all the same.) Overall, this is a rare Schrader work that clearly feels like “pure Schrader” but is also not very good at all.


19. The Comfort of Strangers [1990]

The heart of the film is getting you to feel what Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson are feeling in their stale relationship. Something is wrong, and they feel it, but they cannot quite express why. Schrader makes you feel it, too. Which is the problem.

Because you feel the lack of heat, the lack of interest, and the lack of reason for being there. The journey of them coming back together feels awkward and stilted – which makes sense because the only conclusion you can come to watching them interact is wondering these two people are together besides the fact that they are both hot.

The slow burn to the big reveal at the end also simply takes too long to get to and is far too little intrigue and far too late. The film does though have an insane number of Walken monologues. So, there’s that.


18. Witch Hunt [1994]

“These days, Schrader just wants to lighten up and show Hollywood executives that he’s a versatile talent who can handle comedy and special effects, two of the most popular elements of commercial filmmaking today.”

In one of the lowest moments in Schrader’s career, he felt corned if he wanted to be able to make films in Hollywood. He was branded as “dark” and could not get his movies made (according to the interview linked above). As such, he decided to make an absurd comedy. It is not really good or interesting in it of itself. It is however bizarre and watchable and that is actually something and does make it better than Schrader’s very worst work.


17. Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist [2005]

“You hate God…God gave you guilt.”

While very competently made and containing a few cool moments, overall this made very little impact on me. There really is just no real “hook” to this movie that makes it compelling enough to justify its existence. A rare Schrader film that feels utterly forgettable.


16. The Canyons [2013]

This is the type of film that while yes, it’s not good, it is a very specific type of not good that can only come from the minds of talented people. There is a real “going for it” energy here. The margin of error on this film from the start was impossibly small and only kept getting smaller with the casting of the two leads. You kind of have to see this one to believe it. I recommend that one sees it on the big screen and then listen to Paul Schrader defend live and in person. Truly one of the best movie-going experiences of my life.


15. Dog Eat Dog [2016]

In just one of those beautiful moments of timing working out perfectly, Paul Schrader and Nicolas Cage were on the outs of respectable Hollywood (by any definition) around the same time and ended up making two films, small in scale. The second of which, Dog Eat Dog, is one of those imperfect films that is more interesting to watch than “good” or “wholly successful” at what it is (presumably) aiming for. The movie is mostly about letting Cage and Willem Dafoe cook and just get to go crazy in some scenes as their lives crumble due to a series of just terrible decision-making. Nothing about the film or their stories is romanticized in any way. The film shows the seedy underbelly of some wayward lives, as they they spiral lower and lower.


14. Touch [1997]

Much of Paul Schrader’s work suggests he is a man who has given up on the idea of a better world. “Hope” in most traditional understandings is something he does not believe in. In some ways though, Touch feels like an optimistic film about the world (but cynical about people). Skeet Ulrich actually could perform miracles. He was not a con man. It was Christopher Walken – his would-be promoter – who was the charlatan. Sure, better things can happen. But there will always be those who seem to pervert and corrupt them. A better world may be possible, but the people of the world will always look to profit off of it instead of actually making things better. Touch feels inessential but an interesting chapter in Schrader’s career.


13. Dark [tbd?]

Paul Schrader and Nicolas Cage made two movies in the mid 2010s about men’s lives crumbling due to an inability to cease self destructive decision making cycles.There is probably something to that. Anyway.

The story of this film is pretty fucking weird in that Dark is essentially the Paul Schrader version of a film he (and Nic Cage) have disavowed. Said film is Dying by Light which the studio released and refused Schrader the opportunity to edit to his vision.

What we are left with here is a slick 70-minute film that is essentially all mood and Cage in pure distilled Cage form, as he portrays an evil man (CIA agent) whose brain is literally deteriorating and leading to bad shit. It is pretty interesting, and you should watch it on archive.org. Hopefully, one day, we will be able to watch it on the big screen.


12. Cat People [1982]

On the surface, this story feels like a slam dunk for Schrader to deliver one of his best films. There’s religion. There’s guilt. There’s sex. There’s perversion. These big things in the movie are not just in Schrader’s wheelhouse but some of the defining themes of his classic works. The film just never seems to do much with any of these ideas beyond delivering a satisfying and bizarre thriller. It is worth watching but inessential at the same time.


11. Master Gardener [2022]

Paul Schrader concluded his instantly infamous spiritual trilogy of modern men in the room in a completely surprising but ultimately fitting way.

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed played the classic Schrader protagonist who is descending into madness when confronted with the reality of the world. Oscar Isaac plays the other classic Schrader protagonist in The Card Counter: the man born into madness who cannot forgive himself for what he has done. On the surface, it appears that Joel Edgerton is going to be more like the latter.

But unlike Isaac who makes a futile attempt to hide from the world, Edgerton has actually surrounded himself with reasons to hope. He has made himself a community. He has devoted himself to the art of gardening. He has many young people who look up to him, and he is determined to protect them.

Only there is a problem: the past. In The Card Counter, the past was American Imperialism and empire-building and that leading to Isaac’s future as a torturer. For the Master Gardener, the past is the history of United States white supremacy leading to Edgerton starting off his adult life as a neo-nazi.

Edgerton escaped his neo-nazi ways and found sanctuary on a former slave plantation with a heiress (Sigourney Weaver) in charge who has maintained the master/servant culture on the land that strictly produces gardens for visual pleasure and to raise money from elites for charity or something. Edgerton can only escape the chaos of his past by trying to grow life and build beauty in the horror lands of the United States.

Can beauty being made out of the horrors of the past? Is this garden actually creating true beauty given its purpose?

Joel Edgerton house of cards sanctuary then is blown up by the appearance of Quintessa Swindell who has come to look for sanctuary as well. She is the half-black grand niece of Sigourney Weaver.  Swindell is a living and breathing metaphor of the slave children of slave masters from this land’s past.

Schrader then makes the bold (is bold the right word?) decision for Edgerton and Swindell to find true sanctuary with each other in love. A black woman and a reformed white supremacist. Building a new life together as husband and wife on the land of a former slave plantation. Schrader has made the ultimate white redemption art film.

It is a tough sell on paper, and Schrader has admitted as much and has referred to the film as a “fable.” He said the story is not really possible. It is meant stimulate imagination. What does this imagined world look like? The elite humbled. The land repurposed for creating beauty. A racist white man reborn. An oppressed black woman escaping her tormenters.

I suppose this is a nice idea but it feels tainted by its simplicity. Far more effective in the film is the conclusion of this trilogy. The arc of the three protagonists feels fittingly complete. That makes this film a classic example of why it can be so foolhardy to “rank” or “rate” art. That is not what art is meant to do. It is meant to stimulate the senses, be messy, and hopefully say something about being alive. This film accomplishes that despite my conflicted feelings on the journey it takes us on.


10. Patty Hearst [1988]

While one could imagine why Paul Schrader would be drawn to the provocative subject of Patty Heart, it was not immediately obvious to me if he would be a strong fit. And while it remains unclear whether or not this was the best possible film for her story at the time, the film does feel undeniably connected to the broader themes and ideas that Schrader likes to explore. In many ways, this feels like a parallel film to First Reformed. A person of some status is plucked from their bubble and then forced to confront the conditions of the world. Then they have to navigate that awakening as well as possible (ie: not well). Schrader more often explores the souls of people who were forced to confront the horrors of the world long ago, but he is equally as good at showing someone’s mental collapse. While he more often than not delivers a tightly focus POV through his protagonist, he ups the ante here by delivering a far more immersive experience of a film than usual.


9. Light Sleeper [1992]

While an enjoyable film in its own right, the aspect of Sleeper that is most interesting to consider is how the Willem Dafoe character compares to other Schrader leads and what it says about the work. Dafoe’s John LeTour is intrinsically unsatisfied with his life as a moderately high class drug dealer. That is not the uncommon aspect of this Schrader lead. For LeTour, he feels confidence in who he is underneath his job that he does not realize why everyone is not accepting him. He “feels” reformed on a level that is not matching what he does for a living, and that tension means he on some level knows he must escape the drug game. Tragedy naturally follows and only the temporary escape of prison offers him the peace he is looking for. Schrader’s view of humanity seems no less “dark” here but there is something distinctly less cynical to his work here compared to what came before and what would follow later.


8. Hardcore [1979]

“There’s nothing you can do. You don’t belong here.”

In some ways, this feels like the most essential Paul Schrader film in that it captures so many autobiographical details while also delving into so many of the essential universal themes and ideas that Schrader would explore his whole career. The Cedar Rapids hometown. The progeny escape to Los Angeles to deal in smut. The disappointed Calvinist family. This IS Paul Schrader’s story, spiritually speaking. And Schrader introduces ideas here he would explore even more later on in more detail with Patty Heart and First Reformed. George C. Scott gets pulled out of his bubble and forced to confront the harsh realities and underbelly of this world we have built. Just a knockout second feature for Schrader.


7. The Card Counter [2021]

On the surface, this film may seem like paint-by-numbers Schrader. That would be reductive though. What he and Oscar Isaac created here was a haunting portrait of a human being who deep down knows he is very ill. He does not know how to articulate it. He does not know how he can treat it. All he knows is how to contain it. He knows how to keep it at bay. He drowns himself in routines and structures to create a traveling sensory deprivation environment that numbs him out to the world. This always works. Until it doesn’t. It’s too unnatural. We crave closeness too much and are powerless to resist it. Nor should we resist it. But when we have no tools to deal with the world around us, disaster will surely strike.


6. American Gigolo [1980]

Schrader really does a great job of portraying men desperately clinging to the idea of maintaining the status quo of their lives by attempting to control every aspect of their lives. While Oscar Isaac’s character in Card Counter really clung to control and always kept moving to avoid the pain and sickness inside him, Gere’s character seeks to maintain control because deep inside he understands how fragile his situation is. Both protagonists make their bones outside the law (to a degree in Isaac’s case) but in a way that merely illustrates how silly and arbitrary many laws are. Isaac is trying to prevent something deep inside him from spilling out into the world whereas Gere takes actions to prevent the world from creeping into his bubble. The same arbitrary laws that he ignores also foster a situation where sometimes Gere must make compromises in order to grow and take on new challenges. And that is what brings down everything. Gere and Schrader were in top form here.


5. Auto-Focus [2002]

There are a lot of ideas and concepts in this film worth exploring. There are of fascinating connections to Schrader’s other work and how this film really expands the understanding of Schrader’s exploration of the inner torment that exists in so many of us. The affliction that exists in so many of that causes a person to lash out violently against the status quo of their lives and the world. But really, this is a movie at its core that captures one of the most vital universal truths: sometimes you can be too horny for your own good. While now we can self-implode via horniness on social media, but back then you once could only destroy yourself with videotapes and horniness. Kinnear and Dafoe absolutely flourish here in this colorful yet morbid romp. Kinnear plays the very real star of Hogan’s Heroes who slowly succumbs to sex addiction. Dafoe plays his enabler (to be reductive). Together they unwittingly dig themselves into a hole from which there will be no escape. Schrader does some of the best work of his career here specifically with the lens work (combined with the set design) to capture different periods of Kinnear’s life.


4. Affliction [1997]

“Don’t you care about what’s right?”

Affliction would actually be an apt selection as the defining theme of Paul Schrader’s work. Schrader loves to explore the great distress that lives in all of us, and here he goes all in on that idea. Nick Nolte is deeply distressed by his own inner demons and the world around him. While future Schrader leads would be troubled by large issues such as climate change and being a war criminal, Nick Nolte here is troubled by his failings as father/husband, haunted by the cruelly-still-alive father of his own, and disgusted by the possible corruption in his small town life. All of these torments converge at once on Nolte’s life, and it causes him to disintegrate rapidly. Knowing subtlety is for cowards, Schrader gives Nolte an actual toothache literal affliction to showcase how much Nolte is breaking down. There is something terribly wrong with the world, and it is destroying us from the inside out.


3. Blue Collar [1978]

“I’m not a brave man, and I can’t take them all on alone.”

Blue Collar makes for a stunning debut film for (my beloved) Paul Schrader. I have never seen a film prior to this one that captured what it feels like to be a part of a union. I could see falling into an understandable trap of thinking this film is anti-union.

As a union-man myself, that really seems beside the point and a misunderstanding of the world conditions that forces the need for unions. This film is about how fucked over the working person is in this exploitation-based countries and all of the little nuances that go on with all of that. The systems that have been built to protect the ruling class and entrap the rest of us.

And that is what makes being in a union so frustrating is that they are supposed to be on our side. They are always telling you what they have **done** for you, as if that fixes what is **happening** to you.

There’s a quote attributed to Schrader’s research for the film that goes, “We hate management, but you know who we hate more than management? Our own union. It fucks us.” The film captures that feeling. You know management is not going to protect you because it’s not their job. It’s not management’s job to protect you; it’s to protect the owner’s profits.

But the union? The union is supposed to have your back always in the greater war for our lives. Instead, in the end, we left alone in this world and divided among ourselves.

“They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.”


2. First Reformed [2017]

“Remember that? When everything was ahead of you?”

First Reformed was the first film directed by Paul Schrader that I ever saw. Since then I have gone back and watched it as many times as I possible could. While I immediately understood that this film was “good,” I did not have the tools initially to contextualize this work in the career of one of the greatest filmmakers this country has produced. In many ways, First Reformed feels like the culmination of so many ideas, concepts, and themes that Schrader has been trying to explore from the very beginning.

Ethan Hawke is a lonely man. He has known for a long time that there is something wrong with the world and himself, but for an equally long time he has been clinging to the status quo and the institutions. Coming into contact with Amanda Seyfried and her husband forces him to confront the true horror of human existence. The planet is being destroyed for the purposes of human existence…by humans. He may have intellectually understood human existence was in danger but he was able to compartmentalize that “knowledge” in a manner that allowed him to not “feel” it.

Now, though, he cannot do anything but feel it. Cancer is eating away at him. He is drowning himself in liquor. He has managed to push away the despair of life for so long that he also never needed any hope. With the despair coming rushing back, he is then searching for a reason to hope. He is looking for a way to fight but do you fight such an existential dread? Is there even any fight to be had? What can any of us even do?


1. Mishima [1985]

There are so many aspects of this film that one could point to in order to explain its excellence. Right away the score from Phillip Glass grabs you by the shoulders and roughly tosses you into the tension that you feel throughout the entire film even in the moments of calm. The opening title screen which lets you know how this film will end combined with the score creates this feeling of dread that is just overwhelming the entire time.

Then there is the narrative frame of the film. While the story of Mishima and his acolytes going to kidnap a Japanese general is happening on the margins, the heart of the film is three mini adaptations from scenes from the real Mishima’s novel. It makes a for a genuinely fresh approach to filmmaking and it allowed for a variety of stunning visuals and themes to explore.

Finally, Mishima himself serves as just a classic lost protagonist desperate to make an impact on the world. There is probably no better writer to explore such a concept than Paul Schrader. I look forward to revisiting this film time and time again in the years to come.

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