The film follows the sexual exploits of Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane, the real-life star of Hogan's Heroes, who during and after the show became a full-blown sex addict, ruining two marriages and possibly sabotaging his career in the process. Willem Dafoe is John Carpenter (no, I know what you're thinking, and he's not), Crane's partner in crime who lacks Crane's charisma with women but is fed some scraps by Crane in return for his extensive knowledge of and access to video equipment. Crane's fetish is using the home video cameras to record his sexual trysts, which he reviews over and over again, looking for something that we can't see, and that he probably can't see either.
Kinnear and Dafoe's performances alone are worth the price of admission. This is the best, boldest, and most nuanced work that Kinnear has ever done. His performance is all subtlety and detail; he introduces Crane as a regular, aw shucks family man, but as the movie progresses we gradually see the facade fall as his quiet desperation and insatiable sexual appetite begin to consume him. Not content to go over the top and yell at the top of his lungs to be effective, Kinnear instead puts on a fake smile and charms with a velvety voice while openly degrading and hitting on women. The effect is one of the most genuinely creepy performances ever committed to film. Dafoe is the perfect companion to Kinnear's subtle predator; Carpenter is a pathetic loser, easily angered and easily hurt. He gets angry, yells, and does all of the things that you've seen Dafoe do in his other portrayals of guys you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, or a lighted one, for that matter. It's effective elsewhere, and it's effective here. Together, these men form a pair so utterly joyless and shallow that just seeing them on-screen together made my stomach churn. Their dialogue is only incidental, usually reminiscing on previous sexual escapades or planning new ones, but it's the little tics, gestures, Kinnear's untouchable confidence foiled by Dafoe's insecurity, Kinnear's hidden hunger foiled by Dafoe's overt desperation, that give these scenes their resounding power.
Not to shortchange Schrader's direction, though, which as usual is right on target for the material. He begins in a brightly colored, idealized suburban landscape, filled with all of the usual imagery you'd expect in this sort of light-hearted period and location. Then, slowly, he slides into darker territory, carrying us into the decadent seventies, breaking shots into shorter lengths, shaking the camera, depicting with his cinematography and editing the fall of his protagonist. Admittedly, the techniques Schrader employs here to depict Crane's breakdown have been used many times before, but I still found them extremely effective here.
For the last thirty minutes of the film, I felt genuinely ill; not because I thought the projector was out of focus, as many have complained, but because Schrader and Kinnear were taking me to a dark place and immersing me in it. As I said before, this type of film is not for everybody, but for those interested in the dark side of man, this film is not to be missed. I think that at the very least, the merit of these depressing morality tales is that they provide an exact blueprint of the way not to live our lives. I suppose that showing Crane checking himself into therapy and dealing with his problems and utimately healing himself would be valuable as well, but it wouldn't make for a good film, or a true one. Some people argue against the very existence of this type of movie. My response to them is that in real life for every strong-willed person who solves their problems and triumphs over adversity, there is another loser who ultimately fails to deal with life and implodes upon their own insecurity and weakness. Until this changes, someone needs to continue making these films.