A few economical lines of dialogue establish the depth of field in Auto Focus, Paul Schrader’s artful, rigorous, and damned depressing morality tale fashioned out of one murdered man’s real-life biography. ”I’m a likable guy,” Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) says of himself at the start of his twisted story, and he sure is. Crane, an L.A. radio disc jockey before his run of TV fame as the star of that unlikely 1960s sitcom hit set in a World War II prison camp, ”Hogan’s Heroes,” is a neat and conservative hubby and dad, a red-blooded, churchgoing, teetotaling American who enjoys amateur drumming. He’s a bland post-Sputnik fella in an alpaca sweater and sharp slacks, a go-getter hustling to get himself Jack Lemmon-type roles. Life itself is photographed all lemony and crisp in these early scenes; Kinnear loosens his big, dangerous-to-trust smile to its hap-happiest, least ironic dimension and smoothly conveys the amiable ambition of Everyguy.
”It’s not easy to resist temptation. You must remove yourself from the occasion of sin,” Crane’s priest counsels his parishioner, and here’s where things get interesting. Crane’s other amateur interest is looking at naked women — his wife (Rita Wilson) is deeply distressed to find nudie magazines hidden in the garage — and he can’t, won’t, and doesn’t want to resist. Indeed, no Schraderian man can (think of Nick Nolte in ”Affliction”). Abetted by his toxic new friend and sidekick, AV whiz John ”Carpy” Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), Crane progresses, if that’s the word, from drumming in strip clubs to romping in two-couple sexual hoedowns with Carpy, obsessively documented in still and video photography. (In a seamy symbiosis, Carpy supplies photo know-how, while Crane’s celebrity provides the would-be swinger Carpy with access to women.) And Kinnear, a revelation, drops his bright smile and goes to seed before our eyes, in another strikingly precise performance from one of Hollywood’s most unexpectedly flexible actors. (Maybe he too was hungry for a Jack Lemmon-type role.)
The first marriage crumbles, as does a second, to ”Heroes” costar Patricia Olson (Maria Bello). The career sputters and stalls after the sitcom goes off the air in 1971. The devil of affliction wins out over the angel of moderation. Crane is murdered in a hotel room in 1978, his head smashed with a camera tripod. Although Carpy is suspected, eventually arrested, tried, and acquitted, the case is never solved. (Carpenter died in 1998.)
”Auto Focus” (adapted from Robert Graysmith’s book ”The Murder of Bob Crane”), suggests that every man has light and dark in him, a desire for the American dream of plenty and a pull toward an American nightmare of too-muchness. (Bland man by day, pornographer by night.) That Crane was a TV star only makes weakness more photogenic. That he was battered with an accoutrement of his own prurience only pleases Schrader’s storytelling interests more. The movie isn’t subtle in its filmmaking — and doesn’t want to be. As the contents of Crane’s self-destructive, compartmentalized life start slipping and dangerously spilling, Schrader and cinematographer Fred Murphy (”October Sky”) bend, darken, and fragment the look of the thing, switching film stocks, rattling the cameras, and agitating the editing while composer Angelo Badalamenti (”Mulholland Drive”) spreads aural dread. The direction is merciless, determined, grim, and inventive. (The awfulness of Crane’s ignoble, end-of-the-career-road behavior as a guest on a lousy TV cooking show is pinned down with cold precision.)
Indeed, the distinct visual guideposts and the ardent dispassion of the director’s scrutiny seem to reflect his considered decision to observe from the outside rather than try to penetrate the psyche of Bob Crane. Who can? Even in a fantasy scene in which he appears to be wrestling with his unstoppable urges (his demure first wife appears bathed in beatific light yet speaks vulgarly as she gives him permission to stray), Crane doesn’t ask himself why he does what he does and craves what he craves, but rather how he can get more and more of what he needs and needs. Likewise, the TV star’s relationship with Carpenter isn’t questioned, just presented, like a lab slide of a fascinating fungus specimen.
Sex is joyless and killing in ”Auto Focus,” but within the scope of Schrader’s zoom lens, the performances are vividly alive. Dafoe, whose rangy, vaguely menacing dramatic style complements the director’s interests (the two have worked together before, on ”Affliction” and ”Light Sleeper”), does the hard work of creating a character whose lack of definition extends to his sexual orientation. Wilson and Bello, as Crane’s wives, flesh out two specimens of ’60s spouses, pre- and post-sexual liberation. And some of the subtlest, tenderest work in this singularly untender film is done by Ron Leibman as Crane’s well-worn agent, Lenny. ”People only change when they want to,” he tells his client, decayed from excess. What Lenny doesn’t say, but ”Auto Focus” does, sternly, is that most people don’t want to.