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

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”