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The Last Temptation of Paul Schrader

The filmmaker's spent thirty years wrestling with men who wrestle with faith

Calvinism is the most austere, cold, doctrinaire branch of Protestantism. Yet here are the jubilant words of its founder, John Calvin: “We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love.” Calvinists are fatalistic. Yet the movement was integral in the European Reformations of the sixteenth century. They are social conservatives. Yet the founders of some of Europe’s largest socialist parties were adherents. Calvinism is slavish conformity. Yet it produced one of Hollywood’s true mavericks: Paul Schrader.

The first line of Schrader’s obituary is destined to reference his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), one of the angriest, bloodiest, most urgent films of New Hollywood; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and helped to establish the careers of its director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro. More than forty years and a rich, diverse career later, Schrader has directed the critically acclaimed First Reformed, now in theaters across the country (and opening in the UK on July 13).

First Reformed centers on Father Toller, a small town pastor played by Ethan Hawke, whose life is preparing sermons and tending to his church. The pace is contemplative, but a lot happens. Toller befriends two eco-activists and becomes increasingly sympathetic to their struggle. He mourns his son, who died in Iraq, fighting in a “pointless war.” The church prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary with a reconsecration, attended by the great and mighty. Toller’s an alcoholic, he has cancer, and, to top it all, he might be falling in love!

His counsel for a suicidal parishioner is Kierkegaard: despair, Toller tells him, is our “sickness unto death.”

The structure follows Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), the film that compelled Schrader to make movies: a man decides to keep a diary, and self-reflection comes to influence the events of his life. It’s the same formula Schrader’s been using for forty years, from Taxi Driver to Light Sleeper (1992). Toller narrates his entries in plaintive tones, sometimes interrupting the action to add his internal perspective, which is usually dour and critical. His counsel for a suicidal parishioner is Kierkegaard: despair, Toller tells him, is our “sickness unto death.” He preaches hopefulness too but, mired in guilt and depression, struggles to find it himself. As one character puts it, Toller is always “in the garden,” awaiting execution. Hawke nails this stance of stoic expectancy: the actor has always had a knack for strained seriousness, often playing with a pastiche of male solemnity. This is his Hamlet.

Pastor Jeffers, played with jocular gravity by Cedric Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer), counsels Toller: “Jesus doesn’t want our suffering . . . he wants our obedience.” So the film is a simple sermon about a man who has misunderstood the word of God; it’s a corrective to the martyrs and the misanthropes. Schrader has said as much while promoting the film. But this reading is complicated by the fact that the minister who gives this advice is a compromised character. He accepts donations from the CEO of a giant energy company, one of the country’s biggest polluters. When he commands Toller to “do something in the real world,” we can see Toller’s options: do something pure and self-sacrificial or do something murky and self-serving. Without revealing the devastating finale, Toller chooses neither; he chooses to wait, and receive grace. This is in keeping with Schrader’s preoccupations: like many of his films, First Reformed ends with a symbolic embrace.

After the success of Taxi Driver, Schrader got a chance to direct his first movie, Blue Collar (1978), a morality play posing as a noir, teeming with industrial unrest and racial tension. The subsequent sequence of films helmed by Schrader is one of the most idiosyncratic in Hollywood history. He wrote three more scripts for Scorsese—including Oscar-winning biopic Raging Bull (1980) and the bizarre millenarian fable Bringing out the Dead (1999)—which has given him an anchor in respectability. There have been critical high points: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Affliction (1997), and now First Reformed.

Schrader hasn’t sunk into indulgent irrelevance like Brian De Palma, but nor has he learned a formula for public approval like Lucas, Spielberg or (arguably) Scorsese. His career is littered with underbaked projects, uncategorizable oddities, and downright failures. A sexually explicit remake of a horror classic, an absurdist comedy set in a concentration camp, a gaudy rock n’ roll drama starring Michael J. Fox: all these attest to someone who has struggled to find the balance between personal expression and wider appeal. As critic Kevin Jackson has noted, rather than bow to one of these demands, Schrader’s filmography reflects a working contradiction: an attempt to be both missionary and monk.

Schrader is no longer a Calvinist, but he’s still a churchgoer. After a brief Episcopalian flirtation, he’s now Presbyterian. The question of Schrader’s faith is vexed, but spirituality has remained a dogged fixation throughout his career. At twenty-four, before he’d written a single treatment, Schrader published Transcendental Style in Film—republished with an additional chapter this summer. A dense analysis of the films of Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, Schrader’s work remains the foundational text on how the ineffable can be accessed through the moving image.

With the constant struggle of financing, writing, and producing films, Schrader didn’t revisit the meaning of transcendental style until a few years ago. Inspired by his friend Pawel Pawlikowski, director of the 2013’s Ida, and the preponderance of ‘slow cinema,’ he decided it was time to make his own transcendental film. First Reformed is the result.

Where Schrader’s new film departs: for the first time, he has attempted to show the audience mystery. There are extended long shots—a cemetery, study, garden, or quayside—where characters come in and out of the frame while the camera remains still. During conversations faces occupy the center of the screen rather than one side or the other, a technique favored by transcendental master Bresson. The sound design—ticking clocks, for example—is too loud, and the underscoring is less pronounced. The camera lingers on objects—a glass of whiskey mixing with a goopy supplement. Despite these nods to a transcendental style, the picture isn’t wholly ascetic. Against his own prescriptions, Schrader does not subvert action and character: there are no affectless performances, or droughts of drama. Crucially, unlike the archetypal proponents of slow cinema, Sukurov, Tarr, et al., the film is never boring, in part because the voiceover alone is an engaging argument about faith. Schrader delights in language, nature and, above all, human relationships. The standout scene from the film is not an invitation to transcendence but an exhilarating, CGI rendering of it.

The style of First Reformed may be anomalous, but the themes are not. Across four decades of writing and directing, Paul Schrader has become the most vivid illustrator of American spiritual and religious life. Dominion (2005), his tortured prequel to The Exorcist (1973), details Father Merrin’s multiple crises of faith. When it’s not center stage, religion is a conspicuous contextual feature. In Auto-Focus (2002), TV star Bob Crane strays from dimple-cheeked wholesomeness—fidelity, piety, diligence—to sex-addiction, voyeurism and S&M. In Hardcore (1979), possibly Schrader’s most personal film, Jake abandons his inert Calvinist community, and descends into the moral underworld to find his daughter. He finds time on his quest to explain the basic tenets of the Dutch Reformed Church to a young sex worker. In other films, there are surrogates for religion, but the questions of faith, moral purity, and commitment remain. The final cathartic rampage of Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver; Patty’s (ambiguous) conversion to the life of an “urban guerrilla” in Patty Hearst (1983); Mishima’s ultimate act of a nationalist avowal in Mishima; the many miracles of Touch (1997): these are all examples of Schrader addressing religious questions through secular content. And this list neglects Schrader’s exquisite adaptation of a heretical work of scriptural exegesis: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

One of the central tenets of Calvinism is unconditional election, the belief that God knows who will be saved from the beginning of time. This determinism is present in much of Schrader’s work. Affliction, one of his most critically successful films, is a meditation on predestination. Wade, played by Nick Nolte, is a father contesting custody of his daughter, and a policeman attempting to uncover a web of corruption and murder. He unravels, veering towards psychosis, alcoholism and abuse, until the film’s terrible finale. Scenes from his childhood are intercut with the present, giving the impression that they not only explain the action but cause it. As the critic Goerge Kouvaros notes, in Schrader’s world, we’re often trapped within “stories that seem to tell us.” Wade never buys a fifth of whiskey, but he responds to what’s in front of him: a bottle left in his car, a friend’s hipflask, the funeral beer. The abusiveness that his daughter begins to fear is prefigured by the flashbacks of his father’s wrath and violence. Wade’s partner is only prompted to leave him when she sees his father eating salt from his hand (an idiosyncrasy Wade shares), and she realizes there is no redemption.

“Grace is exemplified by ironic wit because it often takes a sense of irony to accept grace in a modern world.”

This isn’t the sci-fi fatalism of the jacked-up fiend in Light Sleeper, who frantically muses “do you think all our thoughts are on a pre-recorded tape and just get played?” The inescapable determinants of our life are not thoughts, but everything outside them: our parents, our past, social structures, and the physical environment. In fact, the only redemption is with our thoughts and attitudes. As Marilynne Robinson—author of Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004)—puts it: “personal holiness is, in fact, openness to the perception of the holy in existence itself and, above all, in one another… Obedience to God in any circumstance is to find experience opening on meaning, and meaning is holy.” Robinson—liberal Calvinist par excellence—has given us a good definition of another key Schrader concept: grace.

In one of his many critical essays, Schrader writes that “grace is exemplified by ironic wit because it often takes a sense of irony to accept grace in a modern world.” Most of his films contain unapologetically sincere characters, but the movement in his existential heroes—from Travis Bickle to Carter Page in The Walker—represent a turn towards detachment and humor. Are some of his recent efforts a more pointed attempt at ironic posture, or are they just deplorable drek? Should we be more sensitive to transcendence in the Nic Cage shoot ‘em up, Dog Eat Dog (2016)? Is hiring porn-star James Deen and crisis-ridden Lindsey Lohan cynical marketing, or is it an inversion of his hero Bresson’s approach to actors? Bresson’s amateurs achieve a profound, heightened naturalness; do Schrader’s not-quite-actors and bad-actors achieve a profound, heightened superficiality?

If we arrive at The Canyons craving the lurid, sub-Korine sexsploitation thrills that the poster promises then we will be starved. But if we’re open to receive a Schrader experience, then we might be surprised. The style is far from transcendental, but the actions and interactions on screen might possess a holy quality. We’re with the same characters again. The opening scene is a young actor accepting a gift. The rest of the film deconstructs the reality of this gift. The actor is powerless, caught in a net of deceit. Here we are again: predestination and grace.

Grace is the only adequate response to a world governed by forces beyond our control. Pastor Toller narrates earnestly: “grace covers us all.” This is the absolute grace of God, his unwavering love for all his creations despite their sins. Our choice is whether to accept this gift in all its spiritual and worldly forms. Schrader’s masterpieces all hinge on final moments of grace. Julien (Richard Gere), the titular American Gigolo (1980), ends up in prison after he’s framed for a murder. In the denouement, one of Julien’s clients, the senator’s wife, visits him in jail; in this act of love, she destroys her reputation and marriage. This as an archetypal moment of grace, as Schrader explains in Schrader on Schrader:

It is the acceptance of unconditional goodness, which is the same as spiritual grace… It’s a gift and you just have to be open enough to accept it in order to become whole. When it’s the case of someone offering their love, you just have to swallow your ego and accept the fact that someone loves you even though you don’t deserve their love.

Julien is placid and affectless throughout the film. He does little to deserve this compassion, and that is why the acceptance is so difficult and so moving. This same scene of redemptive grace is repeated in Light Sleeper, and again in The Walker (2007). All these moments are choreographically similar: bars separating two individuals, and an attempt to touch. But more significantly, they are all characterized by the necessity of waiting. In the words of philosopher Simone Weil, to achieve grace we must “detach our desire from all good things and wait.” First Reformed continues this fascination with men struggling to welcome the love and beauty that surrounds them.