Paul Schrader has never been nominated for an Oscar, either for writing or directing, so most folks don’t know of him—but I suspect most have seen (and probably liked) some of his films.
His range is impressive. He wrote four of Martin Scorsese’s films, some deserving at least an Oscar nod: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing out the Dead. His first screenplay was for Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza, followed by Brian De Palma’s Obsession and Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast.
His best films as director (and usually writer) are typically gripping and provocative whatever the genre. These include American Gigolo (with Richard Gere), Cat People, Hardcore (starring George C. Scott), Mishima: A Life in 4 Chapters (Schrader considers it his best), The Comfort of Strangers (psychological/sexual thriller, based on Ian McEwen’s novel) and Auto Focus (about Bob ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ Crane’s kinky secret life—and death).
Schrader was directing The Exorcist: The Beginning when studio heads replaced him with Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2). After that sequel bombed big-time, Schrader’s film was released as Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist to serious acclaim, even from William Peter Blatty, whose novel had first ignited the whole phenomenon.
Schrader is again on target with First Reformed, his new film about a troubled Protestant minister trying to reclaim both faith and purpose from the pit of despair. Obviously and admittedly indebted to at least three earlier foreign classics with similar themes—Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet—Schrader’s film is also influenced by his own life.
His parents were such strict Calvinists, young Paul didn’t see his first film (Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor) until he was 17. Diving headlong into all things film, he graduated from film critic to writer to director, rebelling against his repressive past yet revisiting it in film after film, like Hardcore and Last Temptation.
Like many of his other movies, First Reformed deals with sexual repression, obsession and guilt, but the tone and look of this one is far more meditative and austere in its approach. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan filmed in winter with patches of snow, bare and stark, accentuating the isolation and alienation of Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke).
Pasted against a dull New England sky, Toller’s church is imposing but somehow artificial. His congregation is small, the church building itself more of a historical tourist stop than a place of worship. In fact, the minister doubles as tour guide, and one curious couple gives him a donation he didn’t request or expect.
Toller’s small, antiquated Dutch Colonial church is sustained by the Rev. Joel Effers (Cedric the Entertainer) whose modern overflowing megachurch, Abundant Life, is everything First Reformed is not—over-the-top popular, overflowing with wealth. Dapper, portly Rev. Jeffers is the opposite of lean, worn Toller. Both are men of faith in their own ways, but Jeffers has no doubts about his role and that of his church.
Toller is unsure about everything.
When young, pregnant, married Mary (Amanda Seyfried) begs Toller to counsel her husband Michael, a disillusioned suicidal environmentalist who’s appalled at the reality of bringing new life into a world doomed by man, the minister offers the usual platitudes about the cardinal virtues of faith and hope.
Love is another matter.
Toller divorced after his only son was killed in Iraq; the young man enlisted at his father’s urging. The pastor is unhealthy in body and soul, but he soldiers on until circumstances force him to reevaluate his role as a man of peace. Perhaps redemption does require action, even violence, in a world well on its way to hell.
Shades of Travis Bickle’s conflicted struggles.
The ambiguous conclusion of First Reformed has sparked almost as much as discussion as Hawke’s powerful performance. As writer/director, Paul Schrader is on familiar ground, and at the top of his game.