First Reformed is the defining masterwork of 2018.
There may be other movies that are released during the rest of the calendar year that are technically "better" than it, yet Paul Schrader's morose tale of a despondent priest (Ethan Hawke) grappling with the notion that the world has lost all hope captures a precise aura of dread that's currently penetrating our global consciousness. It's a movie about the notion of having no future, and how a person - especially one who has devoted themself to the deliverance of human souls into the Kingdom of Heaven - faces that fatalistic idea. First Reformed finds Schrader folding his past fascinations - namely the filmographies of Yasujirō Ozu and Robert Bresson - into a haunting portrait of one of his trademark loners, grappling with the very nature of existence.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Schrader and his star, Ethan Hawke, at the SXSW Film Festival, and what followed was a rather enlightening conversation about Transcendental Style, and how one grieves the world itself...
BMD: You know, as a huge fan of your work, I have to admit that this feels like an extension of something you wrote 40+ years ago (Schrader's critical text Transcendental Style In Film). Am I off-base in thinking First Reformed is a revisitation of those stylistic ponderings?
Paul Schrader: No, you're on track with that. The book is going to be updated and re-published (writer's note: which it was this month) under a new title: Re-thinking Transcendental Style, and that was the first substantive work of non-fiction I wrote. Now, the first substantive work of fiction I wrote was Taxi Driver. First Reformed brings them both together and, for me, is very satisfying.
BMD: I gotta tell you, as someone who considers you a hero - and I truly mean that from the bottom of my heart - it was deeply satisfying as a viewer. It's like witnessing your beginning and end, all at once.
PS: You know, I've taken to saying: "I hope this isn't my last film. But if it is, it's a good last film."
BMD: It'd be a great fucking last film. But please, let's get a few more.
PS: I'll try, but you never know.
BMD: I talked to you when Dog Eat Dog it came out, and when you made that movie, you told me you were throwing away all the rules that you'd ingrained in yourself over the years, at least in terms of how you understood films were made. What changed? Why revert back to such a formalist past?
PS: With Dog Eat Dog, I freed myself from the "polite" filmmaking I was raised with in Hollywood. Now that I was free, I could really go back to something that I was afraid to do before: a recessive film, a restricted film. [First Reformed] is a film that doesn't beg for your approval. Without Dog Eat Dog, I wouldn't have felt as free to do something this radical. But because of Dog Eat Dog, I also made sure I had final cut, so you don't worry about that freedom. You're not worried about the fact that all your framing is symmetrical or that you're not going to move the camera. You're not going to get a phone call the next day from a producer saying: "you're done. You're fired."
BMD: Ethan, I wanted to know - when you first got the script - what did you feel? How did you perceive it? And were you scared at all of having to be compared to Travis Bickle?
Ethan Hawke: Those comparisons turned me on, because it's clearly the work of the same author, but they're also clearly different works. However, the bar is set so high, and that's such an interesting challenge for yourself: to dive into that voice, and into the wisdom and patience in this movie that's not present in his younger work. It was clear to me that this was very personal, and I mean that in the best way possible. This movie was important: to this soul, on this planet, at this moment in time. This is a serious artist who needs to make this movie. But also, my life had prepared me for this part.
BMD: How so?
EH: I've always been interested in this sort of subject matter. It's so intense and overwhelming.
BMD: When you say "this subject matter", what do you mean? Because there's a lot going on in this movie, both thematically and spiritually.
EH: I've always wanted to play a priest. When I was younger, I had dreams of going into the seminary, which was the only other profession I may have pursued outside of the arts. To get to play one that isn't a caricature was incredible. You know, you see a priest and often they have a gun in their belt in a Western, or they're some kind of idiot, or a sexual abuser, or a Pat Robertson type. But Paul wrote a very serious person examining their faith. Non-fiction is filled with a number of great books on the subject matter, and to get to integrate my life as an actor with my search as a person is what I'm always looking for. Here, it was easy and obvious.
BMD: There are some threads in the movie regarding activism and how it sometimes seems futile. There's even an exchange at one point - and I'm paraphrasing, so pardon me - about "kids these days" and how rageful they've become. I was wondering if you both could discuss this a little bit.
PS: There is a futility in the air right now, and it's very thick. You are living in the first generation that no longer thinks the future will be better for your children. And you - as a person - have to ask yourself: how do I live with this? How do I carry on in the face of hopelessness? That's part of what really motivated the creation of this film: one character (Amanda Seyfried's pregnant mother) asking themself if they should have a child, because it doesn't look like anything is ever going to get better. That line of thought is always going to take you down some dark roads, because it does not appear as if humanity has made the choice in favor of its grandchildren.
BMD: Do you really think this is the first generation who thinks that?
PS: I thought the world would be better for my children. My children do not think it will be better for theirs. There is a clear divide in attitude.
BMD: There's another theme in the film regarding obsession and - much like Taxi Driver - I wondered if, had [Ethan Hawke's] Father Toller not become wrapped up in the idea of climate change and the world ending, wouldn't he of eventually become obsessed with something else?
EH: That's a very good question. To what extent is Toller catching what Paul calls "the virus of despondency".
BMD: Just this sadness...
EH: Exactly. From sickness unto death and so forth. Placing the cause on something as immediate and vibrant as ecology is simply an application of grief. We don't ever think of a minister who gave his life in the name of abolition as a "zealot" or a "freak", or a "depressive", or a man seeking martyrdom. They might've been, but it's the cause that trumps their emotional delicacy. But here, we get a sense that what Toller's truly sad about is his inability to help the younger generation. His inability to save his own marriage. His own son. Even himself. Everything he touches, he fails. That's what he's mourning. Not the planet. His sadness is simply inserted into this agenda because it has nowhere else to go.
BMD: It's almost like he's destined to fail in a strange way.
PS: The ecological movement gives his despair a grandeur that it otherwise lacked.
BMD: Paul, you've always been fascinated by these loners - Taxi Driver's Bickle, obviously - but I also kept thinking about Willem Dafoe's coke dealer in Light Sleeper, and the journals he kept, like Toller...
EH: I was hoping you'd mention that movie. How good is Light Sleeper?
BMD: It's so underrated. But how did the two of you work together to bring the angst that's being transferred to the page out in your performance? Because so much of this movie is internal.
PS: What I like about this gimmick - and I'm going to call it a "gimmick", don't you correct me - which I've been using since Taxi Driver, is that you create a monopoly on the world. You only see the world through that character's eyes. You try and convince the audience that he is a good person, with a good agenda. Then, about forty-five minutes later, you start to shift. He becomes less reliable; less likable. You start to doubt him, just as he doubts himself. He becomes dangerous. Now, you've got the viewer in a spot, because they've made a commitment to identify with this character. You can't just sit there for forty-five minutes and not identify with someone. You rendered them unworthy of the audience's identification. The moment you catch the viewer in that instance - where the character is no longer worthy of that connection - something's going to happen inside that viewer's head. I can't control what that is, unfortunately.
BMD: And how about you, Ethan? How did you work to take those journals and internalize them?
EH: One the things that made [First Reformed] incredibly exciting was that Paul knew exactly what the challenge was. We weren't going to entertain anybody. We were going to make the audience come to us. What did you call it, Paul? A "recessive performance"?
PS: That's right. Sink away.
EH: There are performances where the actor comes to you, and there's a performance where the actor hides.
PS I think, when we first met, I called it a "lean away" performance.
EH: Right. To me, a great performance is one where you don't think the person is acting. It's just who they are. It's effortless. But that's incredibly difficult to do. However, Paul was very clear what the mission was - from the first time we met and had coffee after I'd read the script - and that made working each day with him so fantastic.
PS: I'll give you a good example. We have this powerful scene at the end, and Ethan just starts crying. I call "cut!" and he comes to me and apologizes. He says: "I know that wasn't planned, but it was something I wanted to try. I'll go back and do it your way." And I told him that it was OK at that point to finally give in to all this emotion that's welled up inside of Toller. I told him, "you know the rule, but you also knew the right time to break the rule".
BMD: [everyone laughs] And here we are, talking about rules again.
EH: Sometimes discipline is very, very helpful. The audience knows where they are. They know how the movie's going to play. So, when you get that sudden burst, it pops! There's power in that.
PS: The nice thing about making a rule, is that you get to be the first person to break it.
First Reformed is currently in theaters.