Director Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus is an amazing piece of work, an acute study of how the life of someone paid to make America laugh was relentlessly sorrowful and destroyed by obsession and weakness.
On the surface, it’s the story of Bob Crane (played by Greg Kinnear), whose brief time in the spotlight began in 1965 as the star of Hogan’s Heroes and ended in 1978 with a never-solved murder in an Arizona hotel room. But Schrader adds yet another thematically rich gem to his filmography, which he has forged with a quiet brilliance.
Through Crane’s tale, Schrader weaves American sexual mores, advances in video technology, dangerous impulses and awareness of self into one compelling thread. The movie has a precise vision — funny, sad and profound all at once.
The film tells us Crane had two dreams — to be liked for who he was and to find at least one person who, as he put it, “got him.” But Auto Focus doesn’t pander to the typical good-man-ruined-by-fame notions. Celebrity itself didn’t seduce Crane — the way it created opportunities for him to indulge his worst impulses did.
Already having delved into the world of aberrant sexual pictures, Crane’s introduction to videophile John Carpenter (Dafoe) began his full-fledged descent. As recording technology advanced, so did their predatory search for sex, until both men hit rock bottom.
As Crane, Kinnear is stunning, miles away from anything he’s done in the past. Mirroring the actor’s arc from a sexual neophyte to a connoisseur of debauchery, Kinnear nevertheless elicits an uncanny, semi-sympathetic reaction toward Crane.
That is tied into the film’s focus on video technology. It was no accident that each man was captivated by something able to evolve and, more importantly, be more easily understood.
Through its application to sex, these men derived more pleasure from watching the tape of the night before than the night itself. In one of many outstanding scenes, Schrader captures their pathetic lives. Watching a sex tape in Crane’s basement, the two men talk nonchalantly while masturbating, unable to even recall the emotions behind their physical excitement.
Schrader also captures the parasitic aspect of their partnership, showing that Carpenter was happy to coast on Crane’s stardom as long as the star wasn’t overtly assertive about it. In their scenes together, Dafoe features his usual flashy grin filled with menace just waiting to explode.
But we get as distinct a sense of Carpenter’s wounded soul as we do of Crane’s. Dafoe conveys a sense of woe in many crucial scenes, such as confrontations with Crane or one in which he’s severed from the high-end technology he loves simply because he’s color blind.
It would be easy for some to dismiss Auto Focus as yet another flashy trip down the Hollywood boulevard of broken dreams. But his dreams were damaged long before Hollywood got to them.
Everybody loved him on Hogan’s Heroes, and it is a sad thing that no one ever really liked or got to know Bob Crane. But Schrader compels us to understand that it’s sadder that Crane’s dreams had no foundation. Even before the fame, the actor was never able to neither like nor know himself. This is one of the very best films of the year.