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Schrader’s missed opportunity

In First Reformed, Paul Schrader, the CRC’s most famous apostate, does something I’ve never seen any filmmaker do. He gives us, for at least an hour, the most subtle and intelligent Christian movie since Tarkovsky–a work that blends prophetic witness with an almost Jamesian delicacy of social observation. Ernst Tolliver (Ethan Hawke) is the lonely proprietor of a historic New England church that is kept open–partly as place of worship, partly as tourist trap–by the generosity of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), minister of the local megachurch. Though their approaches differ, they are both shown to be principled Christian men. Thus, as Tolliver gets drawn into ecoterrorism via his friendship with a troubled parishioner, and a conflict between the two pastors becomes inevitable, the film seems ripe for a properly tragic confrontation, one that will force us all to reflect on what it means to follow Christ on a planet we are destroying.

And then Schrader just wrecks it. He puts on a suicide vest and blows it up. He ravages the film like a CEO ravages Earth. Tolliver, for no reason, turns into an abusive narcissist, Jeffers into a cable-TV prosperity gospeller. Amanda Seyfried’s character fares worse: turns out she’s just here to provide the kind of spiritual revival that wears a skirt. (Of course a gorgeous woman in her 30s falls in love with a depressed old man. This is totally believable and not at all the kind of plot twist aging male writers throw into their stories to escape the purgatorial boredom of writing.) As Tolliver stares into a mirror while wrapping himself with, I swear this really happened, a barbed-wire cilice, you realize what’s going on: Schrader got bored and decided to just remake Taxi Driver. You half-expect Tolliver to yell You talkin’ to me?! into God’s Bergmanesque silence.   

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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