Were this to be Schrader’s final film, it’d be a fitting coda to his filmography, but the life on display implies he’s just getting his second wind.
Throughout the many ups and downs of his storied career as a screenwriter and director, Paul Schrader has returned, on occasion, to a simple paradigm in his work. His “man in his room” series of films has seen as many permutations as Schrader’s evolving taste, mood and disposition can muster.
In 1976, he wrote Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro as a loner in his twenties possessed with yearning and anger. 1980’s American Gigolo saw that archetype shift, with Richard Gere as an aesthete escort in his thirties, a character Schrader revisited in 2007’s The Walker, which began its life as an unofficial sequel, only with Woody Harrelson as an openly gay DC socialite in his fifties. Between those rhyming bookends, he penned Willem Dafoe as a former junkie/drug dealer in his forties reckoning with a lifetime of guilt.
First Reformed, Schrader’s latest, is potentially the strongest entry in this series, at least of the ones he’s directed himself. In the film, a career-best Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a former military chaplain mourning the death of his son, the end of his marriage and a crisis of faith in the face of the modern world’s many ills. Toller bucks the exponential aging trend in Schrader’s series, as he isn’t older than Harrelson’s character in The Walker was, but he does represent the full-throated fierceness of Schrader’s current mindset.
After several years of genre exercises and critical misfires, First Reformed feels like the culmination of Schrader’s entire storytelling career, a stunning achievement built on the simple foundation of an old premise revisited with the benefit of professional and creative hindsight. The film is directed with a veteran’s eye for efficiency and sparseness of framing, but written with the blunt-instrument bellyfire that has gotten Schrader this far. The result is a truly stirring portrait that encapsulates the same themes and concerns he’s been variating on for decades.
There’s an audaciousness to First Reformed that is utterly refreshing in the current cinematic landscape. Too often, a film will feel shocking for the sake of it, overt in its symbols and bland in its execution of flouting convention or good taste. But the passion that fuels Schrader’s outlook here is genuine. This isn’t the empty provocation of a Lars Von Trier or the art wank of a Nic Refn, but the pure distillation of Schrader’s personal interpretation of his earliest influences, namely Melville, Ozu and Bresson. Schrader is revisiting the techniques he first wrote about in Transcendental Style in Film, a fascinating exercise in restraint from a filmmaker so enraptured with the excesses of pulp.
When we meet Toller, who now maintains an old, historical church whose benefactors casually refer to it as the souvenir shop, his voiceover narration explains the storytelling device as a forced diary our protagonist is writing for the course of one year, a ritual meant to purge his less savory thoughts by trapping them plainly with pen and paper. It’s less the free-form bile of Travis Bickle and closer to the confessional of Dafoe’s John LeTour from Light Sleeper. Gigolo and Walker both eschewed narration, but in First Reformed it is crucial to the audience’s vital kinship with Toller.
Schrader lays out the building blocks of the story with efficacy, framing Toller’s daily routine with unencumbered composition within the tight confines of the 1.37 aspect ratio. Coupled with the monotonous, intrusive presence of Toller’s thoughts, the viewer’s eyes are left to wander the frame, forced to actively engage with the minor facial tics of Hawke’s visage, searching for conflict and consternation. It allows the film’s early scenes to play out ominously, as the closest thing to a plot on display is the philosophical debate between Toller and a radical environmentalist named Michael (Phillip Ettinger).
Mary (an actually-pregnant Amanda Seyfried) brings her boyfriend Michael to Toller to offer him some kind of solace. Michael is distraught at the current state of the world and cannot fathom bringing their unborn daughter into a life on a planet that will be potentially uninhabitable by the time she’s 30. These initial scenes of Toller and Michael verbally sparring imply this will be a straightforward character portrait, perhaps a wordy rumination on religion versus science. But as the focus sticks with Toller’s existential predicament and the undeniable tether between his own demons and the social ills Michael is so obsessed with, a very different picture begins to form.
A24’s trailers for the film smartly eschew any heavy-handed hints towards the direction the film takes, but needless to say, long-time devotees of Schrader’s work won’t be much surprised at the path it follows. For newcomers, the film’s daring final act may confound, it may enrage and it will certainly provoke, but it will also resonate. Schrader has made perhaps his finest outing as a director, if not his brightest moment as a writer, and the controversial finish may be all that stands between this film and universal acclaim.
It’s thrilling to see a filmmaker rebound so thoroughly, especially with such a fantastic performance from Hawke in the lead. Were this to be Schrader’s final film, it’d be a fitting coda to his filmography, but the life on display implies he’s just getting his second wind.