Film-maker ruled by contradictions

Paul Schrader returns to his roots for his latest film, First Reformed

First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke (above)
First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke (above)PHOTO: A24, NYTIMES
Director Paul Schrader (above) on First Reformed.
Director Paul Schrader (above) on First Reformed.PHOTO: A24, NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Like a taxi driver, film-maker Paul Schrader has travelled many roads, not always able to arrive at the destination without hitting bumps.

His resume ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.

At the sublime end is his 1976 screenplay for Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated Taxi Driver.

Then, there is his 2013 directing credit for The Canyons, a pulpy, Hollywood-set tale.

After being partly funded by Kickstarter, then very publicly rejected from film festivals such as SXSW, it ended up in the ghetto of on-demand cinema.

Still, The Canyons ended up making money for its investors, if only thanks to rubberneckers curious about a once-great film-maker's spectacular fall from grace.

I wanted to remind the viewer: 'You know there is another world out there than the one these people are living in, don't you? And that it's really quite close to the surface?'

DIRECTOR PAUL SCHRADER on First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke

That harsh judgment may have been premature.

Schrader, 71, was in Washington, DC recently to drive promotions for his latest film, First Reformed, arguably the best movie he has made.

Set in upstate New York in a tiny, 250-year-old chapel, it follows the Reverend Ernst Toller, a troubled pastor played by Ethan Hawke.

The action of the story is fuelled by the suicide of a young man whom Toller had been counselling: an eco-activist cynical about the future of the planet and flirting with protests bordering on terrorism.

Gradually, Toller takes up the mantle of the dead man's cause.

Eventually, this path leads him towards a potentially violent turning point, in which the prospect of committing one of two sins no matter which way he turns - the sin of inaction or that of wrongful action - torments him.

Contradiction is not just part and parcel of Schrader's career, but also his life story, which began in a strictly religious household in Michigan.

He was not allowed to watch movies because of what his father believed was their pernicious moral influence.

Still, cinema has claimed him as a film-maker. Schrader's work includes more than 20 screenplays (Raging Bull, 1980; The Last Temptation Of Christ, 1988) and a dozen stints as director (American Gigolo, 1980; Cat People, 1982).

His oeuvre is notable for a fascination with the stuff of mainstream movie-making: sex and violence.

But he also has returned, again and again, to a quieter theme, one he first encountered in French director Robert Bresson's 1959 masterpiece Pickpocket, about a petty thief wrestling with notions of good and evil, decency and greed.

That character - lonely, introspective, living in but also strangely detached from the material world - first appears in Schrader's work in the form of the tortured, violent loner Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

He appears again in films such as American Gigolo and Light Sleeper (1992).

Toller is yet another iteration of that same archetypal protagonist, articulating his doubts and fears in a journal - and voice-over narration - while self-medicating a serious stomach ailment and existential angst with hard liquor.

According to Schrader, Toller is simply an expression of the filmmaker's life-long interest in one of the universe's most fundamental questions: How can one hold out hope for mankind when there is so much to despair of?

That ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time - hope and hopelessness - is, according to Schrader, the very definition of wisdom.

First Reformed marks the first time he has tried to make what he calls an overtly "spiritual thriller" - stripping away Hollywood action for stillness and minimising contrived dialogue in favour of revelatory silence.

There is no soundtrack until the third act and, even then, Brian Williams' score sounds less like music than like an unsettling alien soundscape, more appropriate for science fiction than psychological realism.

According to Schrader, this serves "to cut against the grain of cinema itself, which loves to move and loves to dazzle".

But dropping the razzle-dazzle, he admits, entails risk: "You create dead time."

Of course, the flip side of "dead time" can be that people pay more, not less, attention to what is happening on screen.

Unlike most movies, the destination in First Reformed is not a physical place or even an emotional one.

"I knew that by the end of the film, we had to jump into the parallel world - the world that runs alongside this one, that we can't see, the world of the spirit," Schrader said.

"I wanted to remind the viewer: 'You know there is another world out there than the one these people are living in, don't you? And that it's really quite close to the surface?'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2018, with the headline 'Film-maker ruled by contradictions'. Subscribe