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2017

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2018-08-02

First Reformed [2017] by Paul Schrader

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In 1976 Paul Schrader's script, made into the film Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese, was released.  This was a powerful cinematic moment that reverberates into the present.  Last year, Lynne Ramsey's You Were Never Really Here covers similar ground; a broken isolated man uses extreme violence to liberate a child from sexual exploitation.  It was hailed by critics, particularly for Joaquin Phoenix's deserving performance, but for me it lacked truth.  It wanted to deal with the real stuff, the difficult stuff, like Taxi Driver had, or at least it wanted to give that impression.  It showed an unequivocal evil, child sex slavery, something that would justify the extreme violence perpetrated by the film's hero in the process of liberating a particular child.  But what was it really confronting?  The violence that perpetuates violence that justifies violence, a violent man damaged by violence who commits violence to stop violence.  Meanwhile, we the audience, who may not yet have been damaged by violence, are exposed to it.  To what end?  Is it artistically rooted, philosophically grounded, ethically justified?  Is this film really the modern installment of the true wake-up call that Taxi Driver delivered?  No, it is not.

In 2017, 40 years after Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader offers a film of equal weight, difficulty and integrity.  It may not have the same stylistic originality as Taxi Driver, but at its core it is the film's contemporary incarnation.  Ethan Hawke inhabits his character at least as fully as Robert De Niro did his.  He is Reverend Toller of First Reformed, 250 years old, a museum but not really any longer a church.  Abundant Life, with seating for 5000, is the local affiliated modern church, with a full congregation and corporate sponsorship.  Toller is asked by a woman to speak to her husband, an environmental activist overwhelmed with the destruction of the world and in despair at the prospects of the future, particularly about bringing a child into the world, as his wife is pregnant.  Toller finds the conversation very stimulating and in his own emptiness he takes on the man's vision, his disgust and his despair.

The delicate complexities of the situation are woven through the richly portrayed character of Reverend Toller, his internalisation of this despair and his response.  How does one choose to live in the world, engage with the world, having fully accepted that our culture is destroying the planet at a rapid rate.  Will God forgive us?  Or, more importantly, how do we choose to respond ourselves?  There is no prescription of course, there is no naive hope nor unrelenting despair offered, just the masterfully laid out texture of an intricate spread: what Toller sees, what he doesn't see, what is obvious, what is bewildering.  And how do we choose to respond?  With integrity?  What does that involve?  With denial?  What crutch will facilitate that?

In Taxi Driver we were presented with Travis Bickle's solution: kill all the people associated with this girl's sexual exploitation and take her out of the situation.  We saw this violence in graphic detail not to revel in it, not to be entertaining or give the film a gritty realism, but to see it for what it is.  If this is the solution, we need to look hard at it before we choose it.  You Were Never Really Here is an inferior film because it doesn't present the protagonist's response so dryly that we can see it for what it is, it presents it like a thriller, we are there with him, smashing skulls, saving the girl, being the hero, surprised by the plot twists along with him.  There is no philosophical complexity, no ethical integrity.  But in First Reformed we are presented with a situation - repugnant, complex, problematic - and although we have deep empathy for Toller and can relate to his anguish, we are not drawn into his psyche, we can see his strengths, we can see his faults.  We can see his thinking, we can see the solutions he has reached, we can map and trace his mistakes if we choose to.  We can contextualise his decisions.  And thus we have not an easy answer nor a nihilistic despair, but a complex tapestry, an invitation to engage, to think and feel, to make our own decisions; we have an extraordinary central performance and a masterful film.

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