Paul Schrader's Auto Focus is an accomplished film about '60s television actor Bob Crane, whose sexual compulsions propelled him in a downward spiral until he was found bludgeoned to death in a Scottsdale, Ariz., motel room in 1978. There's a telling moment early on when a fan asks Crane (Greg Kinnear), an amateur percussionist, whether the drum solos that Crane aired on his pre- "Hogan's Heroes" radio program were really his own. With a look that conveys a hint of pained self-realization, the straight-and-narrow Crane ' the model of suburban civility, the devoted father and husband, the actor who aspires to a Jack Lemmon career ' quietly responds, "I wasn't faking that." It's the confession of a man who, by all accounts, spent his life living a lie until he finally capitulated to his darker impulses and never looked back.
Auto Focus portrays Crane's free fall into his carnal abyss without moral judgment, even when his self-destructive conduct distances him from everyone else in his life. That is, everyone but John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who introduces Crane to the world of orgies and videotape. Their symbiosis initially makes for a perfect folie Ã deux: Crane attracts women with his bland handsomeness and celebrity, while Carpenter possesses the technological know-how to capture their sexcapades for posterity. But the relationship begins to disintegrate as the equilibrium between the two shifts, and the film leaves little doubt that an angry and betrayed Carpenter murdered Crane in his sleep, although he was acquitted in a criminal trial years later.
There's much to commend Auto Focus. The set and art direction are superb, evoking '60s and '70s dÃcor with dazzling precision. Dafoe's performance has a poisonous desperation, although you can't help feel for the guy because he's such a loser. Rita Wilson and Maria Bello make strong impressions as Crane's forsaken wives. The real eye-opener here, however, is Kinnear. Although he resembles Crane (and shares his smirk), the wonder of his portrayal is how he becomes the character, as opposed to impersonating him. In the last few scenes, Kinnear allows you to watch Crane go to seed before your very eyes, and it's a scary sight.
Much of Schrader's work (Hardcore, Affliction) has explored the peripheries of human existence. Here he examines what could have been sensational subject matter in a subtle, almost discreet manner. He's not out to shock or moralize; in truth, his motives are somewhat unclear. In the end, you know no more about what made Bob Crane tick than you did at the outset. Perhaps that's the point of Auto Focus: sex as our most impenetrable mystery.