Skip to main content

You counselled him and then he shot himself.

First Reformed
(2017)

(SPOILERS) This uneven at best Roman Catholic – I know, it concerns a protestant church, but who are we trying to kid? – eco-guilt picture from Paul Schrader that has been hailed as his best in years, which it probably is, but these things are relative. Schrader has made, for the first hour or so, an engrossing study of faith, doubt and despair, but his choices after that, particularly during the last half hour, undo much of the effort.


As one of Hollywood's go-to practising Catholics (step forward also Marty) it should be no surprise that Schrader's appreciation of belief is a very literal, screedy one, where anything more nebulous and, dare I say, spiritual is left for the birds (a similar issue haunted Scorsese's otherwise sterling Silence). These filmmakers are essentially admitting to wrapping themselves in an empty shell of religion, one that offers no real comfort or solace; so why do it? Why even attach a label to oneself if it provides no fulfilment (the answer being, presumably, once a Catholic always a Catholic)? Here, Schrader's cinematic surrogate is Ethan Hawke's severe and introspective Reverend Toller, wrestling with his faith even before the husband (Michael, played by Philip Ettinger) of one of his congregants (Amanda Seyfried’s Mary – who is pregnant! Of course she is!) blows his brains out after receiving counsel from him.


Michael, neither a believer nor scathing of the pastor's views, confessed his environmental woes to Toller, how he considered it wrong to bring a child into a planet bent on destruction. "Can God forgive us? For what we’ve done to his world?" he asks, to which Toller is diplomatically neutral because he has no idea ("Who can know the mind of God?"). Michael also informs Toller that the world has reached its tipping point and that collapse isn’t in some distant future; "You will live to see this". 


It seems Michael's demise is Toller's personal tipping point, but in his depiction of this, or lack of depiction thereof, Schrader allows his film to get away from him. Toller rather abruptly assumes the mantle of deranged enviro-activist when he retains rather than disposes of Michael's suicide vest. Yes, Schroder has summoned the ghost of Travis Bickle.


This Taxi Driver impulse entirely gets in the way, and makes what had the makings of a mature, reflective work seem rather silly and worse lazy. Father Toller taking on Michael's environmental cause is the least effective way of Schrader broadcasting a big issue, since it undermines the character and the sense that the writer-director is able to tell his story in any kind of measured way; now he has another string to his doom-laden bow besides despair at religion: despair at the future of the planet (why only now?) When Toller then dons a suicide vest, ready to blow away a church full of unworthies, we lose any sense that Schrader thought his character through at all. 


The result is that Toller's an incoherent mess, and the solid work put in by Hawke comes to naught. There’s no grounding whatsoever for the leap Toller makes from troubled pastor to someone ready to kill a congregation. Yes, he's depressed, has lost his son, his marriage, has (most likely) stomach cancer, a drinking problem and is seeking answers to his crisis of faith through the study of deep religious thinkers. And he feels in some way responsible for Michael's suicide. But does any of that suddenly flick a switch to make him a mass murderer (or, as I guess we're intended to see him seeing himself, a self-appointed martyr to a cause)? With Taxi Driver, the millstone of quality around Schrader's subsequent career, we are aware of Travis Bickle's psychotic break from the start. It's never in any doubt that he's unable to track a common wavelength. In contrast, it's never less than clear that Toller knows precisely moral right from wrong, so the adjustment Schrader makes seems almost puerile. Almost as puerile is Toller symbolically wrapping himself in barbed wire before failing to administer a fatal dose of drain cleaner. 


The best sequences come early, as the pastor engages in philosophical debate with Michael. Schrader can't hide how this invigorates him as a writer, such that he has Toller comment as much in his journal ("I felt like I was Jacob wrestling all nightlong with the angel. It was exhilarating"). It's rarely a good idea to become too wrapped up in what you think a film should be, rather than what it is, but if Schrader had resisted the inclination to pursue dramatic hyperbole, and maintained these low-key contemplative lines instead, he might have come up with something really special (particularly since Toller struts forward an interesting philosophical line that invites further discussion, with regard to hope and despair and how "Holding these two ideas in your head is life itself"). 


Instead, we quickly lose the thread of inquiry, and we’re left with more familiar tropes, of corrupt corporations and opportunistic ministers. There's the occasional gimmer of the same interrogatory spirit, such as with the angry young support group attendee set on denouncing the poor, Toller given to opine how all responses have become ones of extremes, but it’s only occasional. Perhaps the best is Reverend Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer) calling out Toller for being such a misery guts (seriously, it's no surprise his church is all but empty) and responding to the pastor's "You think God wants to destroy his creation?" with a scriptural trump card "He did once for forty days and forty nights". Much as it may sound like anathema, it's (contextually) a reasonable argument, certainly no less valid than Toller's responding to requests to understand why bad things happen to good Christian people. 


But Schrader sacrifices this for something altogether more emptily cathartic. He chooses to grant Toller salvation through the laziest of devices, a woman half his age barely given a character of her own; the substitute "spiritual" experience of the film is his non-sexual union with Mary, in which he flies over an unspoilt natural landscape, only for it to descend into a hell of belching chimneys, toxic waste and rubbish. Subtle it ain't. Toller finds "redemption" in the advice he gave Michael in relation to bringing new life into the world, his self-preservation instinct winning out (we could call it love, but Schrader has already rejected spirituality as attainable, so this must just be death as an aphrodisiac, infatuation spurred by the thought of imminent demise). He has, after all, rejected old maid Esther ("I despise you. I despise what you bring out in me"). Ultimately, he rests easy in the shallow, which is what Schrader does in the dramatic – or banal – fireworks of his finale.


First Reformed is an austere, bristly film, so reflecting Schrader's temperament (he prefers those empty, desolate churches to the charismatic ones), and if it had maintained that tone, keeping to a straight- and-narrow thematic and philosophical line, it might have been a good one. But the lurch into melodrama is fatal; the worst thing you can say about such a sombre picture is that it ends up rather silly, but it does.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Largely agree on the film itself (it's badly messy and way, wag overrated), but Paul Schrader is a lapsed (?) Calvinist, not a Catholic. Wrote a lot about and for Catholics, I guess. (Dunno where to place Last Temptation in this scheme: that was for a Catholic, adapting an Orthodox Greek, and presumably the Trinititarian stuff it delves into is of theological interest to all Nicene Christians.) But anyway, dude's Dutch and is or was Reformed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks - I should know that as I've read enough about the guy in the past. Probably because he always seems so tortured. It looks like he went Calvinist, Episcopalian and now Presbyterian: “Calvinism was all the guilt and none of the ritual, and Episcopalianism was the opposite,” he says. Three years ago, he became Presbyterian, mostly because his local church had a music program that he enjoyed.
      https://www.wsj.com/articles/with-first-reformed-paul-schrader-revisits-his-calvinist-roots-1527876339

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.