Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

OSCARS 2019: First Reformed (2017)

Paul Schrader knows what he's doing but rarely gets credit for it. You'd think having classics like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” on his screenwriting resume would secure Schrader's reputation among America's most important filmmakers. Instead, his name doesn't come up nearly as often as it should. His first five features as director – running from “Blue Collar,” through “Hardcore” and the underrated remake of “Cat People,” and into “Mishima” – all have cult followings of some sort. Yet the number of motion pictures he's made since then have been largely ignored. I'm not suggesting disowned Nicolas Cage crime flicks or movies with Lindsey Lohan deserve a second look. However, I would hope the wave of critical praise that has greeted “First Reformed” will finally give one of American cinema's most enigmatic figures a little more respect. It got him his first Oscar nomination, because the Academy is among those that underappreciated Schrader.

Ernst Toller is the head pastor of First Reformed, a 250 year old church in upstate New York. He has recently decided to start keeping a journal, in hopes of reaffirming his faith during the church's re-dedication, which a local megachurch is sponsoring. He is having health problems of increasing severity and using alcohol to dull the constant pain. His concerns are drawn into sharp relief when parishioners – Michael and his pregnant wife Mary – ask him for council. Michael is an environmental activist, who protested a local factory ran by a man named Balq. Michael wonders if it's right to bring life into this world when humanity has inevitably pushed it towards environmental catastrophe. This awakens a crisis in Ernst.

“First Reformed” summons up and tackles about a hundred different issues. It has been self-described as an encapsulation of all the themes Schrader has wrestled with over the years. Yet the movie is most about how the human soul reacts in the face of hopelessness. This sense of despair ranges from the deeply personal to global in nature. Ernst became a pastor after his son died in Iraq. Despite saying he found solace in God, this is a pain he clearly has never totally processed. He feels deeply unsatisfied with his work. His congregation shrinks, more people flocking to the near-by megachurch, with First Reformed becoming a tourist attraction. (The quietness with which he responds to said tourists is one of the few moments of comedy in the film.) When Michael’s research forces him to confront the irreparable damage man has done to Earth, he has trouble correlating the inactive role religion plays in the world with the fear and rage he feels. He feels professionally, personally, and existentially useless. These questions – what do we do when life feels useless? When the planet seems to be hurdling towards total destruction? – are ones many people are feeling these days. I know I am. “First Reformed” provides no easy answers but stares into the dread these feelings cause.

Throughout the film, Ernst refers to the grievances of his life as “petty.” Yet these petty concerns seem to be piling up. Schrader lingers on the everyday anxiety this causes. Such as the excruciating pain Ernst feels when urinating blood or vomiting. Or the humiliation during the everyday work of running a church, unclogging a toilet, removing a dead animal caught on a fence, worrying about old plumbing, accidentally spilling food on a man at the soup kitchen. Is this Doing the Lord’s Work? He dismisses these feelings, including his depression, as prideful. Yet other people cause him anger too. Such as an obnoxious America First kid in the youth group he councils, a scene that so perfectly captures the frustration of our modern political discourse. Or Esther, a woman active in the church that has a crush on him. He eventually lashes out at her, causing another moment of uncomfortable comedy. If these concerns are as petty as Ernst describes them, why do they bother him so much?

The audience is made directly privy to these anxieties through voiceover, as Toller’s diary entries are narrated to us. The diary is an act of self-flagellation, as writing down and re-examinating his thoughts only increases his anxiety. Despite the storm raging inside, Ethan Hawks stays mostly quiet in the role. At least at first, he has a certain dignity to maintain, as an authority figure in his dwindling community. As the story goes on, as Toller’s fears become harder to control, Hawke’s performance gives over more and more to desperation. He stammers during heated debates about environmentalism before finally flailing into animal cries of agony at the very end. Hawke so perfectly captures the anxiety of our modern age, trying to hold it together even though everything, inside and out, is crumbling.

Schrader shot the film in 4:3 ratio, the black bars on both sides of the screen narrowing the eyes into the center of the frame. This causes the audience to even further examine the exact, precise images unfolding. Everything inside “First Reformed” has been placed there with a purpose. It’s a quiet, still film, much like attending church. The perfectly arranged nature of the film causes an odd beauty, in moments as brutal as a dead body discovered among a stainless field of snow. It also causes discomfort in the audience when that stillness is disturbed. Such as a hallucinogenic moment when Ernst and Mary levitate through scenes of natural beauty, before his thoughts of environmental destruction intrude, in a way any anxious person will recognize. Or the deeply disturbing ending, where the church-like hush of the film is disrupted by acts of violence, bodily lust, and a dream-like tone that leaves the exact implications of the events open to interpretation. This approach, a horrifying blackness intruding into the spiritual tranquility, extends to the musical score. It’s largely quiet and empty, save for when Lustmord’s churning, discordant noise bubbles up, a bad memory stabbing into a calm day.

There’s so much more to say about “First Reformed,” as Schrader litters the movie with symbols and question. What to make of Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, a pregnant woman that is as virginal seeming as her namesake? Or quizzical shots, like Peptol-Bismol swirling ugily into a tumbler of booze? It’s part of the director’s Transcendental style, his way of making movies that function more like visions than straight narratives. What makes “First Reformed” work the best for me is how accurately it captures living a life with anxiety, how any peace is squeezed out by an uncontrollable feeling that the world is ending or that your body is dying. It’s obviously one of last year’s best films. The Academy overlooking it in the Lead Actor, Director, Cinematography, and Best Picture categories truly calls for penance. [9/10]

No comments: