Twenty-FIve years ago, Paul Schrader's script for Taxi Driver catapulted him to notoriety and critical acclaim. A gun-toting writer-director with a manic creative drive, he arrived at the tail end of the age of the auteur, the last of those brilliant bullies to be indulged and revered for their at-any-cost approach to cinema. But after a little fiasco you might have seen called Cat People, the zeitgeist turned against him, and for the past 20 years, he's operated in a critical nether region--making movies that are devastating one moment, clumsy and forced the next. Auto Focus is no exception.

What Schrader does best is map the masculine descent into despair, creating a linguistic hop-and-skip that maps his characters' anxieties as they see their reflections in the abyss, stare too closely, and topple headfirst. Take Hardcore, the story of a religious businessman named Jake Van Dorn, played by George C. Scott, searching the pornographic underworld in search of his runaway daughter. As Van Dorn tours the seedy underside of L.A., Schrader captures his growing self-doubt, his awareness that he's getting a charge from being in this creepy, sad situation. Schrader lays bare the ethical drift in this most righteous alpha male.

Scenes such as these are where Schrader always hits his stride, and Auto Focus doesn't kick into gear until he takes out that private palette of shadows and throws them across the cinematic canvas. In the first half of the film, where we learn that Bob Crane is just like any other white suburban husband, full of unfulfilled sexual urges that are masked over with a Reagan level of can-do gosh-golly gumption, well, Schrader's just futzing around. But once Crane begins to fuck everything in sight, and that gumption is beaten to a pulp by his raging id set loose by fame, Auto Focus becomes a different film. It's as if he woke up one morning and said, "Wait a minute, I'm Paul-fucking-Schrader; I'm gonna paint it black."

And does he ever. By the end of the film, Crane's face is a puffy, grotesque mask of lost laughter, down to the saccharine tint of his nasty, fat, caramel-colored sunglasses. He stumbles around in a swagger, desperately looking for a way out. It's 30 minutes of brilliant, terrifying work, this pounding at death's door, simultaneously reminiscent of Nosferatu and Night of the Living Dead. Few filmmakers have the facility to illuminate the sad corners of the Western male experience with such an unsentimental empathy.