Paul Schrader is best known for the scripts of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but it was his 1978 directorial debut, Blue Collar, a quasi-Marxist thriller about downtrodden Detroit autoworkers who turn to crime, that earned a critic’s wisecrack calling him “a propagandist without a cause.” Schrader’s new film, First Reformed, shows him in service to a very modern cause: Protagonist Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a Dutch Reformed minister in a half-empty upstate New York church, suffers a crisis of faith that tempts him to become an eco-terrorist. This gimmick, trading religious principle for secular dogma, is weirdly calculated for a faithless millennium.
But Schrader miscalculates. He blends the spiritual and the political — the sacred and the profane — without demonstrating any real fervor or making that conflict anything but annoying. Toller’s drab, ascetic story (beginning after the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage) presents an unconvincing personal test. Schrader goes through the motions of an art film — specifically copying Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. But he also imitates an exploitation flick: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a classic example of the art-and-exploitation amalgam that was particular to the mixed-genre films of the Seventies American renaissance.
While Taxi Driver reflected post-’60s social trauma (Vietnam, political assassination, and race tension) with a palpable sense of psychic damage, Schrader now responds to post-9/11 turmoil — but with cynicism that matches Millennial self-interest. Toller writes tormented thoughts in a journal (“If I could only pray”), and his isolation is interrupted when a pregnant parishioner, shamefully named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), seeks his help regarding her suicidal, bipolar activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). This involvement puts Toller (and Schrader) on a confused, if fashionable, path. Toller asks Mary, “Are you an activist?” and she answers, “I do share Michael’s beliefs.” Schrader appeals to Millennial “beliefs” the same way Hollywood films once appealed to what hippies called “flower power.” Toller and Michael’s discussion about the killing of a group of activists becomes mutual sulking rather than philosophical counseling. Toller’s increasing detachment from faith devolves into an anti-institutional and anti-religious tract.
Schrader’s film background (including scholarship and the humble-brag about his strict Calvinist upbringing that prevented him from seeing movies until he was 18) has not resulted in spiritual or aesthetic sensitivity. Lacking Bresson’s sensuality, Godard’s existentialism, Spielberg’s former ecumenical vision, and Jared Hess’s beatific embrace of humanity in Nacho Libre and Don Verdean, Schrader’s dour films score points for the gatekeepers of today’s agnostic film culture. He takes Bresson’s search for God’s grace and turns it into the pitiless egotism of a perpetually spooked Toller (an ex-military skeptic).
Before Toller can turn himself into a terrorist (as though that is the only alternative for Americans of conscience, or a stereotypical veteran suffering post-traumatic stress), he contends with another modern complication: the traditional faith of African-American culture as represented by a rival, the Reverend Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer), who runs the black and multi-racial Abundant Life Church, and requests Toller’s participation in an upcoming ceremony to reconsecrate the 250-year-old edifice. Kyles represents Schrader’s own version of the black sexual, spiritual ideal in Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” essay.
Black and white religious practices, sometimes culturally distinct, are symbolized by Kyles’s vital community center and by Toller’s church, which operates mostly as a museum for tourists, but Schrader glosses over the comparison. Respectful relations between Toller and Kyles keep each man’s cultural resentment barely suppressed. Cedric the Entertainer shifts smoothly from gregariousness into serious business, an amusing contrast to Hawkes’s miserable monotony. Their different approaches to life are unexplored, just like the social anxieties Schrader first devised in Taxi Driver, then falsely ameliorated in Blue Collar.
Race is as confounding as religion, given that the prospect of reconsecrating a church, which was part of the Underground Railroad, doesn’t inspire Schrader to understand black gospel commitment or fulfillment. This, too, is consistent with the cynicism demonstrated by black political activists this millennium who abandon the church for the Democratic party.
Schrader still doesn’t know how to make movies that express belief in a cause, or naturalism, or anything else.
No sign of faith (whether a rousing gospel song or the hymn a WASP party girl remembers in The Last Days of Disco) attests that Schrader has become a cinematic sage. Now that he deconsecrates the formerly unifying principles of Western filmmakers as varied as Cecil B. DeMille and Roberto Rossellini, Schrader gets celebrated at a New York repertory theater for his “untamed and fiercely independent . . . cinema of solitude.” That’s another way of justifying hipster nihilism.
As Toller goes in for self-flagellation (scored to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” for odious irony), Schrader proceeds toward fake mysticism: sublimated sex between Toller and Mary atop visions of environmental pollution, also featuring levitation like in Birdman. If Schrader fell for Iñárritu’s nonsense in that movie, what was the point of his ever writing a book on Ozu, Dreyer, and Bresson?
The “propagandist without a cause” may have finally found his place in a faithless era, but he still doesn’t know how to make movies that express belief in a cause, or naturalism, or anything else. In such agonizing tales as Hard Core, Light Sleeper, American Gigolo, The Walker, Affliction, Light of Day (the best of them), and now First Reformed, Schrader deliberately avoids making movies that proselytize or bear witness. They’re pseudo-intellectual cop-outs. Is it his calling to lead moviegoers astray?