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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

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.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

Do forgive me for butting in, but I have a bet with my daughter that you are Hercules Porridge, the famous French sleuth.

Death on the Nile (1978)
(SPOILERS) Peak movie Poirot, as the peerless Peter Ustinov takes over duties from Albert Finney, who variously was unavailable for Death on the Nile, didn’t want to repeat himself or didn’t fancy suffering through all that make up in the desert heat. Ustinov, like Rutherford, is never the professional Christie fan’s favourite incarnation, but he’s surely the most approachable and engaging. Because, well, he’s Peter Ustinov. And if some of his later appearances were of the budget-conscious, TV movie variety (or of the Michael Winner variety), here we get to luxuriate in a sumptuously cast, glossy extravaganza.

I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
(SPOILERS) Was Joe Eszterhas a big fan of Witness for the Prosecution? He was surely a big fan of any courtroom drama turning on a “Did the accused actually do it?” only for it to turn out they did, since he repeatedly used it as a template. Interviewed about his Agatha Christie adaptation (of the 1925 play), writer-director Billy Wilder said of the author that “She constructs like an angel, but her language is flat; no dialogue, no people”. It’s not an uncommon charge, one her devotees may take issue with, that her characters are mere pieces to be moved around a chess board, rather than offering any emotional or empathetic interest to the viewer. It’s curious then that, while Wilder is able to remedy the people and dialogue, doing so rather draws attention to a plot that, on this occasion, turns on a rather too daft ruse.