Paul Schrader has been kicking around Hollywood for a long time, but he has never truly been rewarded for his hard work and effort. Schrader was born to a strict religious family, and didn’t see a film until he was seventeen years old. The first film he saw was The Absent Minded Professor (1961), a film that left young Schrader very unimpressed. One would assume that he would have remained uninterested in the medium if he hadn’t encountered the film, Wild in the Country (1961).
The film connected with Schrader in some way; perhaps it was its narrative which he connected with (the film had Elvis Presley as its main lead, and concerned a troubled young man from a dysfunctional family who pursues a literary career). Whatever it was that Schrader took away from Wild in the Country; it led him becoming obsessed with the element of film and in his young adult life, he decided to pursue an education in the world of film theory.
Schrader earned his B.A. from Calvin College, with a minor in theology. He then earned an M.A. in film studies at the UCLA Film School upon the recommendation of Pauline Kael. With Kael as his mentor, he became a film critic before graduating to screenwriter and eventually (or should that be inevitability) becoming a filmmaker.
Schrader understands the foundations, the language and the theory of film. We can see the years of education in the opening to First Reformed, with its establishing shots setting the scene and the main character. The shots are simple, expertly framed to give the viewer just enough information they require and not overloading them before the narrative properly begins.
Through these opening shots (a shot of the stark, grey sky, the sign detailing the church’s history, the church door and the inside of the church with its empty pews), we know instantly the film’s tone. This is a serious film, with a powerful message that it wants to convey. Schrader understands the power of film, and the impact that it can have in our everyday lives.
Schrader hasn’t been shy about admitting that he has drawn from influences such as Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), proving that he understands the importance of studying the history of film and using it as a guide to create one’s own work.
Despite being a part of the Hollywood culture, Schrader has remained an outsider and has never won an Oscar. Despite receiving endless amounts of praise for his work on various Scorsese films such as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999).
Schrader’s own directional efforts seemed to go unnoticed by the Academy, and his recent efforts such as Dog Eat Dog (2016), Dying of the Light (2014), and The Canyons (2014) (which I personally quite liked in a soap-opera trashy kind of way) have received mostly negative reviews. Although, Schrader really should receive credit for managing to bring out that performance from Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons, which remains her best performance as a matured actress.
However, Schrader’s earlier directional efforts were strong and many overlook his ability to direct films with an original and distinct look. It was Schrader who brought the likes of Richard Gere to the big screen in American Gigolo (1980). People perhaps underestimate the cultural significance this film has (it established Gere as a leading man, and was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to include frontal male nudity).
It was Schrader who reinvented the concept of the remake, with his 1982 film Cat People (1982). The remake took the original elements of the film and revamped the story as an erotic thriller, rather than a B-movie creature feature that the original film was. Schrader somehow made Cat People, a little more adult and tapped into the current fears that many held at the time.
Schrader also received critical success with Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), which was based on the life and work of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Schrader considers Mishima the best film he has directed. “It’s the one I’d stand by – as a screenwriter it’s Taxi Driver, but as a director it’s Mishima.” (as he discussed in Schrader on Schrader and Other Writings released in 2004).
With First Reformed, all of Schrader’s hard efforts pay off. All of his prior films seem to have been leading up to this masterpiece. This is a film which has so much going for it whether it is the strong central lead performances from Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, or its compelling tale of finding one’s faith and purpose in the world.
Unlike the misfire that was Darren Aaronfsky’s Mother! which was released last year, First Reformed tackles the issue of global warming and environmental disaster in an almost subtle way. This is a film with a political message, but it is never preachy, because it isn’t just a political film. There is an underlying story of a man’s faith and identity being tested.
Hawke’s Reverend Toller is the distinct cousin of De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Nicolas Cage’s Frank Pierce, a man who is God’s lonely creature, doomed to be the rejected outsider in society. With Toller, Schrader manages to capture the insecurity and doubt that many men face.
Toller is a dinosaur which hasn’t quite faced up to the fact that no one really cares about religion and God anymore. Seyfried’s Mary is a character that really has so much influence and importance in the film, and is somewhat overlooked. Mary is our moral compass, but she isn’t necessarily a virtuous one. She is an ordinary 21st Century woman, who is struggling with her own past demons and trying to find her own purpose in the world.
Personally speaking, I have never been very impressed with Seyfried as actress, but in First Reformed she shows her capability as an actress and her performance is so powerful that often she outshines Ethan Hawke.
Of course, I fear that Paul Schrader’s reputation and his past remarks will somewhat affect his running for best director at this year’s Oscar’s. Schrader is a director who has always been one step ahead from the rest of the pack, a lone wolf who has never followed the rules and has gone down his own path. Yes, his films aren’t always masterpieces; they can be at times frustrating and pretentious, but this is man who understands the very building blocks of film and knows how to expertly weave together a narrative and always tests our limits as a viewer.
Schrader is a man who isn’t afraid of focusing on the deadbeats of society; the forgotten and the misunderstood. He knows that life isn’t always like what we see depicted in the bright, glossy and colourful MGM musicals. First Reformed offers us something that we all need in these most desperate and desolate times…It offers us hope and faith. Surely, Schrader deserves some gratification for that?