With First Reformed, there’s finally a movie that lives up to the hype that has surrounded Paul Schrader since roughly 1976, when Taxi Driver—which he wrote and Martin Scorsese directed—put him on the list of writers to watch. Since then, for each objectively good or even great movie he’s written—Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Affliction, Raging Bull, American Gigolo—he’s pumped out dog shit at more regular intervals.
Maybe his spotty track record is a result of studio interference. Schrader’s previous gig as both writer and director on 2014’s Dying of the Light was taken from him by the studio. 2016’s Dog Eat Dog, which he directed but didn’t write, received the most limited of limited releases, and it’s easy to see why: Most film studios don’t want to see some guy’s head blasted off with a shotgun, especially when that exploding head is in the same room as a sleeping baby. (Maybe these studio execs never saw the last 10 minutes of Taxi Driver.)
But you should know what you’re getting with Schrader. This is a filmmaker who fires on all thrusters whether the material is wretched or sublime. Take First Reformed, which tackles one of Schrader’s favorite recurring themes: faith taken to such obsessive extremes that it nearly turns his characters mad. It, too, has an exploding head. Fortunately, the head in question is removed from its body off-screen, and is appropriately played for horror and sadness, unlike in Dog Eat Dog, where it’s supposed to be high-sterical.
In First Reformed, the head in question belongs to Michael (Philip Ettinger), a young husband consumed with despair over the possibility of cataclysmic global climate change. When he learns his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant, he takes his own life rather than bring a child into a decaying and dying world. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) has counseled Michael to no avail, but their conversation has renewed Toller’s faith. Toller, a bit of an emotional wreck himself—son who died in Iraq, failed marriage, cancer diagnosis—decides to pour his energies into Michael’s cause, studying climate change websites and taking back to his church the suicide vest that Michael was building in his garage.
In case you forgot, I have a podcast called Spoilerpiece Theatre, co-hosted by the very excellent Kristofer Jenson and the super bodacious Evan Crean.
This week kicks off with a special edition of Riedel’s Crewind, as Evan and I talk WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (4:12), the Mr. Rogers documentary that has been charming critics and audiences the world over. Next up, Kris talks ADRIFT (14:18), a true story starring Shailene Woodley as a young woman left to fend for herself and her injured partner after a hurricane destroys their boat. It’s a tad uneven, but the sheer physicality of Woodley’s performance and the fascinating focus on just how taxing survival can be. This leads me to quickly recap DEAD CALM (25:08), before Evan and I wrap things up with gritty, violent, and inventive sci-fi flick UPGRADE (31:02).
Not-bad story about the seamy side of power dynamics in Los Angeles. Really peters out at the end as Julian (Richard Gere) becomes more desperate and pathetic. Bill Duke is a plus as a pimp with his sights on Julian. Michelle’s (Lauren Hutton) near obsession with Julian doesn’t make much sense. Beautiful to look at, great Giorgio Morodor score.
Atypical happy-ish ending for writer/director Schrader. It’s just too bad you can see the ending coming long before Julian. Also shows evidence of not knowing where it was going. To wit: Scenes start suddenly fading to black in the last 30 minutes. Never a good sign.
Fascinating pastiche weaving together Yukio Mishima’s work with dramatizations of his life and, most importantly, his last day on earth. The segment with the mother/son/loan shark doesn’t work, and the movie doesn’t really get at what made Mishima tick, but it’s quite a journey nonetheless. Philip Glass’ score lends the film a sort of otherworldly feeling, and ends up being his least irritating since Koyaanisqatsi.
All the hallmarks of a Michael Mann production are here: long stretches of silence, sudden bursts of violence, men being men, women being subservient to men (an unfortunate hallmark).
Mann hadn’t yet learned to round out his stories with anything resembling subplots. This is one story, writ large, and I’m not sure I care much about the story. James Caan comes across as aloof instead of tough or righteous. Could be his fault, but I think it’s more Mann’s screenplay. Just look at poor Tuesday Weld’s character. She’s not even an archetype she’s so thinly drawn.
In any event, it’s cool to see all the things Mann would pack into each movie are here, albeit in a less polished form. Plus, I usually loathe Robert Prosky, but he’s goddamn good here.
On second viewing, I realized this is truly a perfect film: Honest, funny, dramatic, and all the technical boxes are checked, too. Plus, as someone who has done time in Sacramento, it sums up all the good and bad about it. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are outstanding, but the entire cast deserves praise. Big win for writer/director Greta Gerwig.
Apparently I’ve reached an age when a movie NOT having a happy ending counts against it. Or maybe I liked these characters so much that I REALLY wanted them to make it work. Either way, “On Chesil Beach” is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen, with two dynamite performances at its center (though it’s no surprise that Saoirse Ronan is the standout).
We first meet Edward and Florence in 1962 on their wedding night. They’ve come straight from the ceremony and now they’re locked away in their hotel room on Chesil Beach for a terrible dinner that to an even worse night. For some reason – and I won’t get into why, but it’s heartbreaking – these two can’t have sex. Edward tries, and Florence is repulsed by the idea of sex even though she tries even harder than Edward to do it.
Through flashbacks we learn just enough about them to fill in the gaps – of note, they’re both virgins – and we see how society, circumstances, and our parents can damage us beyond repair. The final shot is crushing – we learn that one of them was more stubborn or unmovable (or insert adjective here) than the other – and we wonder what might have been. This movie is devastating.