Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” does not itself fully stare into the abyss of human callousness, but it’s enough that it shows us what happens when someone does that, how it consumes the soul with horror and isolation. This is the same trick Schrader pulled off when he wrote the script for “Taxi Driver” more than four decades ago.
His ability to successfully revisit this cinematic territory is both easy and difficult to believe, as I discovered when I saw “First Reformed” in the theater last month. On the one hand, the character of Rev. Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, is a logical contemporary update to Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, where the struggle against the decay of modern society is replaced with an attempt to reckon with environmental disaster. On the other hand it’s hard to believe that this movie was made by a seventy-one year old, so vital and alive and surprising is Schrader’s filmmaking here. If he’d made this four years after “Taxi Driver,” that would not have been difficult to believe, but forty-two years? This film is a miracle.
In addition to “First Reformed,” I also saw fifteen other films last month, listed below. One of them was Christopher Nolan’s “unrestored” print of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in 70mm projection. I knew this movie was beautiful and transcendent, but I had no idea of the depth of its beauty or the extent of its transcendence, having never seen it on the big screen before. If you get a chance to experience it, you owe it to yourself to go.