Caricature Study

The word “masterwork” is being tossed about liberally since the release of a new film called First Reformed, so I felt I had to see it—even though four decades of exposure to the productions of its 71-year-old writer-director, Paul Schrader, have offered me little save savage instruction in the meaning of the phrase “waste of time.”

Surely, I thought, it couldn’t simply be that First Reformed gained its fan club because it tells a story about a tormented pastor awakening to the threat of global warming. That couldn’t possibly be the only reason.

It’s not the only reason. There’s also a bad guy based on the Koch brothers. He’s the second-worst polluter in America and the big reveal here is that he gives $85,000 to his local church. Eighty-five thou? Please. A really evil Koch clone would give $50 million. Oh, and there’s also a kid at a Christian fellowship meeting wearing a T-shirt with a cross on it who complains about Muslims. I didn’t see the movie at a critic screening, but I assume the critics who have been raving about this collection of wildly obvious caricatures had to restrain themselves from clapping like audience members at the Samantha Bee show.

As for me, I sat through this cockamamie piece of emotionally apocalyptic claptrap wondering why there are no lightbulbs brighter than 40 watts anywhere in upstate New York. It’s dark, you see. Dark because the pastor, played by Ethan Hawke, is in despair. But why doesn’t the pregnant woman who seeks his help, played by Amanda Seyfried—why doesn’t she have some nice 100-watt bulbs? Or even one? She needs some general illumination. She might fall down the stairs or something.

First Reformed is the sort of film that’s usually called a “character study” because it devotes every second to its central character, Rev. Toller (as in ask not for whom he tollers, because he tollers for thee). But Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, isn’t a character at all. He’s a collection of attributes. He’s not only sick at heart, he’s literally sick in the stomach with what is surely cancer. He keeps a diary but keeps ripping out the pages. He drinks a lot. He’s alone because his wife left him. His wife left him because their son died in Iraq after Toller persuaded the boy to go to the Virginia Military Institute.

Indeed, as Toller begins to go bonkers around halfway through the movie, I was reminded of Schrader’s disgraceful role 40 years ago in helping to create the noxious cliché of the deranged and homicidal Vietnam war vet in his screenplay for the 1977 movie Rolling Thunder. Now he’s created a new cliché to go with the old one: the deranged father of a dead Iraq war vet. Let’s hope this one doesn’t catch on.

Rolling Thunder was one of the screenplays that made Schrader’s reputation. He was launched onto the Hollywood A-list in the 1970s because he showed genuine creativity in coming up with terrific ideas for movies.

George C. Scott as a small-town Michigan Calvinist who discovers to his horror that his daughter has become a porn actress and goes to rescue her? Genius! Alas, the movie itself, called Hardcore, was risibly awful. How about Richard Gere as an Armani-clad, sports-car-driving American Gigolo? Brilliant! Except that’s all there was. A fancy horror remake of the 1940s B-movie Cat People set in New Orleans? Sure, why not? Audiences giggled. A Patty Hearst movie seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Patty from kidnapping to bank robbery? Inventive! Nope, awful. With the exception of his screenplay for Taxi Driver, which is far more memorable for Martin Scorsese’s direction than anything else, Schrader has never made a good movie. And he’s made 20 of them.

Even when he left the Hollywood elite and became an independent filmmaker in the 1990s and 2000s, he had great ideas followed by lousy execution: Willem Dafoe as a high-class drug courier in his 40s trying to figure out how he’s going to live the rest of his life in Light Sleeper, Woody Harrelson as the gay best friend of D.C. society ladies who finds himself in the middle of a murder case in The Walker.

Now there’s First Reformed, which seems to be a movie about a clergyman wrestling with God but is really about Schrader wrestling with Ingmar Bergman’s own series of tormented-clergymen movies of the 1960s, complete with ticking clocks and mirrors and windows. Those movies were better. But what else is new? Everybody’s movies are better than Paul Schrader’s. I knew that. I know that. And yet I fell for the Schrader hype. Again.

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