Review by Brooks Williams
The great Paul Schrader’s latest film, (showing this week at The Colonial), is the third installment of his unofficial ‘Diary Trilogy’.
And, the fact that it’s also a part of his ‘Man-in-a-Room’ cinematic pentalogy, and his ‘spiritual quest’ hexalogy is proof-positive that the new offering is as compelling, complex and contemplative as he’s ever delivered.
The first diary film, of course, was his stellar screenplay for TAXI DRIVER (“All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk-pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick. Venal. Someday a real rain will wash all this scum off the streets.”) Schrader followed this up 16 years later—utilizing his future favorite actor, Willem Dafoe, in LIGHT SLEEPER. Dafoe plays John Latour, an insomniac drug dealer lost in a labyrinth of city slime, agonizing ennui and deadly torn spirituality. He writes tortured midnight journals that, apparently, are the only things keeping him afloat. (“Labor Day weekend. Sometime for a garbage strike! Everybody crazy to stock up. They decided to score at the last minute, and they want it now. Never fails… A D. D. told me when a drug dealer starts writing a diary—it’s time to quit. I started writing after that.”)
Dafoe (as Letour), would use up a blank book, toss it, and then begin another one. Something similar is happening with Ethan Hawke’s conflicted clergyman in the new FIRST REFORMED (“I’ve decided to keep a journal, to set down all my thoughts—and the simple events of my day. I will keep this diary for one year, and at the end of that time, it will be destroyed… I know that nothing can change, and I know there is no hope.”). But what does change is Paul Schrader’s approach to his filmmaking as he begins life in his 70’s. He told Hawke, while directing him, that (to paraphrase) whenever he felt like pushing forward into the audiences’ collective consciousness, that he should pull back and go quiet instead. (If you are interested, check out Schrader’s lecture/Q&A on Youtube here. He describes his interest in what he calls “Transcendental Cinema”, and his love of fellow directors Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer.)
Schrader is now against the flashy, frenetic style he used in something like AMERICAN GIGOLO—with Richard Gere’s character, Julien Kaye, looking sleek and gorgeous in beautifully tailored Armani suits—while Debbie Harry and Blondie blasted out their international smash hit “Call Me” on the soundtrack. If we continue our thoughts about movie music for a moment—if Blondie was perfect for AMERICAN GIGOLO, then maybe someone like Lana Del Rey would have fit nicely on FIRST REFORMED. If you don’t know Lana, she’s a moody, almost narcotized film noir influenced chanteuse, obsessed with white Mustangs, bad boys, and wearing “diamonds on skid row”. She sometimes performs lying down on stage. Maybe she and Schrader are the beginning of a new trend: slow, quiet, dreamy artistic endeavors that would be like a soul-soothing balm for our life in the hyperactive 21st century.
FIRST REFORMED also includes ideas about climate change, war deaths, and a levitation sequence. It’s a major entry in Paul Schrader’s oeuvre, and should be seen more than once to soak in all the creative nuances.
FIRST REFORMED. See it! Love it! Get slow and spiritual with it.