Magazine | February 25, 2019, Issue

Oscars Alternatives

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed (A24)

At this time of year, in the aftermath of the pomp and glamour of the Oscar nominations, I sometimes write a kind of catch-up essay, covering the Best Picture nominees that I failed to review. In this case, that would mean reviewing Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, which both cleaned up at the Golden Globes . . . and which both embody the total mediocrity that defined 2018 at the movies. And I’m afraid I just don’t have the willpower to do it. Not this issue. Maybe next time, on Oscar eve. Maybe.

Instead let me offer some Oscar counterprogramming, with recommendations for two smaller movies, flawed and fascinating and available on your television or computer now, that should have been in the ranks of Best Picture nominees but weren’t, and that contain two of the best male performances of the year.

The first is First Reformed, which did manage to grab its writer-director, the famously complicated Paul Schrader, a Best Screenplay nomination — Schrader’s first Oscar nod ever, somewhat staggeringly, despite all his long-gone collaborations with Martin Scorsese. The official subject of the movie is climate change: It’s the story of a Protestant pastor in some wintry upstate New York setting, played by Ethan Hawke in a fantastic good-looks-gone-to-seed performance, who is radicalized by his contact with a young, despairing would-be eco-terrorist (Philip Ettinger) and the young man’s pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) and begins to consider some kind of direct action against the local polluter who’s also a donor to his church.

In the age of woke Hollywood, the “Christian pastor who learns to care about climate change” narrative might seem like a subject that the Academy would want to elevate. But this is a Schrader movie, so anyone expecting a simple pro-environmentalist parable will come out extremely disappointed. As he descends from struggling Protestantism into Ted Kaczynski–esque apocalyptism, Hawke’s pastor becomes a clear cousin to Travis Bickle, Schrader’s Taxi Driver vigilante, someone you cheer on at your moral peril. And the writer-director, a child of Calvinists whose work always partakes of total-depravity theology, uses the eco-terrorism as the hook to pull the viewer into an immensely important subject rarely treated effectively on film — the decline of Mainline Protestantism, and the void it leaves behind.

In First Reformed that decline is visible in the position of Hawke’s ministry. He pastors a lovely antique Dutch church with a congregation of about a dozen, which is kept alive as a museum by the nearby Evangelical megachurch, Abundant Life, and its friendly big-shot pastor (played by Cedric the Entertainer). Schrader’s script, to its great credit, doesn’t condescend to the megachurch; Abundant Life’s version of Christianity is clearly somewhat shallow but also decent, striving, and sincere. It just doesn’t have the thickness of the old Protestantism, or the heights and depths required to help souls who are truly in extremis — and in the shadow of its insufficiency, more-apocalyptic alternatives take root.

The major weakness in the movie would require spoiling the ending to unpack. Suffice it to say that the pastor’s specific choice of terroristic tactics seems like a screenwriter’s conceit rather than a natural evolution — too much of a psychological and theological reach for someone whom we first meet reading Thomas Merton. And it’s a testament to Hawke’s performance that he sells it as well as it could possibly be sold.

Which allows me to segue to the other 2018 movie and performance I want to recommend — another case in which a gifted actor carries a not-perfectly-successful conceit over the finish line. The movie is The Death of Stalin, and the conceit is, basically, What if the Soviet Union at its most horrific resembled the scabrous, ridiculous Washing­ton, D.C., of HBO’s Veep?

The person attempting to pull off this blackest of black comedies is Armando Iannucci, the man responsible for both Veep and its British predecessor, The Thick of It. He has assembled a remarkable cast of comic actors, all of them cursing like sailors in a deliberately inconsistent range of accents — Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov. The goal is to blend the lower sort of comedy with the grimmest possible historical material — making us laugh at the bungling absurdity of the power struggle that follows Comrade Stalin’s sudden demise while including enough shootings, rapes, and torture to be true to the deep horror of life under totalitarianism.

I laughed a lot, but the synthesis doesn’t always work. Isaacs is terrific, as are Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s ludicrous son and arrogant daughter, and the erstwhile Bond girl Olga Kurylenko gets a brief, elevating turn as a Christian pianist who seems to be only visiting this hell. But while Buscemi and Tambor and Palin all achieve the requisite absurdity, they never quite escape the dissonance between their well-known comic personae and their supposed identities as ruthless survivors of decades of intra-party warfare.

In one case, though — the most sinister — the synthesis works perfectly: The hilarious and terrifying performance that the British stage actor Simon Russell Beale gives as the squat, depraved, and ruthless Lavrentiy Beria is enough to vindicate Iannucci’s conceit all on its own.

In a better world, Beale would be re­warded with at least a Supporting Actor nomination. In this one, he’ll have to settle for my recommendation that you consider watching his profane uber-villain and Hawke’s tormented pastor as a double feature this Oscar evening, instead of what promises to be the most lackluster Academy Awards in years.

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