Dear Paul Schrader,
I have just finished watching your latest film, First Reformed, which starts Ethan Hawke as the Reverend Ernst Toller, a man facing a personal crisis. I am wondering, did you intend this to be an ode to the ills and delights of patriarchy or did you think you were telling a universal story?
You’ve made a clever film, no doubt about it, and you are at the top of your game when it comes to your craft. I’ve read some articles after watching it because I couldn’t understand why such an artful film left me so unmoved. I read about all the other films you referenced, even your own; Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, whose protagonist is alcoholic and ill and keeps a diary, Bergman’s Winter Light with its existential angst. Even a bit of Taxi Driver with Travis Bickle watching his Alka-Seltzer fizz and a touch of Tarkovsky with the levitation in the dream sequence. I can imagine the thrill this gives all the film buffs, the swell of satisfaction as they understand the connections. It will make a great essay topic at film school, where eager young things can pull it apart and put it back together again.
I can’t shake the image, though, of you and all those revered, white, middle-aged directors in a room together; the masturbatory, congratulatory slapping of backs as your eyes shine at how great your films are. Although I’m not so sure Bergman would be in on that as it was the emotional connection that I couldn’t find. Yes I know the character of Toller is “deep within the twilight room of his soul”, I could tell because he was always frowning and he was full of piss and blood and grief and sickness. I get it. He’s a man conflicted, wanting the surety of God but unable to believe in grace. Every still and manicured frame tells us of his violent lethargy, his self-flagellation.
It is the female characters, Paul, that give you away. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), all benign goodness and no story. She doesn’t need one of course because she’s just a metaphor, a catalyst for Toller’s search for divinity. And I’m just saying, lying facedown when you’re that pregnant is really uncomfortable. It was as if her reality wasn’t really that important. And Esther (Victoria Hill), kindly and gauche and of no importance to Toller or the story. You could take all the women out and you’d have essentially the same thing, just no transcendental ending to wow the crowds.
I suspect I’m being harsh. There are so many films and good films, after all, that have tissue-thin women in them. Ground-shaking, genre-changing films about the human condition that on second glance seem to be about angry white men facing death or having to grapple with an emotion. Yours is not the best of them, nor the worst. Just another in a long line.
Have you seen this film? I am sure there are many people who disagree with me. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.