A depressed priest finds an outlet in doomsday environmentalism.
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric the Entertainer
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
If a theme had to be forced onto the films that just happen to have been released in 2018, despair comes to mind. It’s been present in works ranging from arthouse indies like Eighth Grade and You Were Never Really Here to the big-budget spectacles of Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2. Nowhere is despair more prevalent than in Paul Schrader’s haunting First Reformed, where all forms and all scales of dread are encapsulated by another of Schrader’s ‘god’s lonely men.’ Calling to mind the spare, religious-inflected introspection of mid-century masters like Robert Bresson, First Reformed is a bleak rebuke of hope and a dense treatise in search of it.
I picture Joel and Ethan Coen writing their scripts in their office and laughing at each other about how their films will be interpreted. Maybe they think about all the ink that will be spilled by critics and film journalists wondering why the Mike Yanagita scene is in Fargo or what the true role of John Goodman is in Barton Fink, and chuckle that they don’t actually put these mysteries in their films for any purpose other than the mystery itself. Much like several of their films, there is actually no meaning to be discerned. The Coens love coincidence with no rationale behind it and the capriciousness of an impassive and unknowable prime mover, themes that film writers aren’t big fans of because there isn’t much to write about when that is the case. The reviewer looking for answers asks ‘why did that happen’ and the Coens reply ‘why ask why?’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears to be exactly as cosmically retributive as much of the Coens’ earlier work, with that prime mover watching from above and snatching goodness away from the characters’ grasps. Though each of the six stories feature bloody ends, this is actually something of an outlier for the duo, in that it’s obliquely beautiful in its own specific way. Joel and Ethan remain as fatalistic as ever, but nothing is so simple as the point A of birth and the point B of death. There are songs to sung and moments to be shared along the way.
This review’s being written on Black Friday, an event that the protagonist of Buster’ Mal Heart surely loathes. He would see people lining up outside of a Target and deride them as sheep at the trough, and that’s before we get to the dual-sphinctered inversion that they’re all missing out on. Iconoclastic stances like Buster’s/Jonah’s are attractive, especially when his is framed against the empty Big Sky mansions of the decadent rich. Sarah Adina Smith’s film acknowledges this attraction for the working class, but ultimately has little patience for it as her addled lead hurtles towards destruction in pursuit of freedom.
Jeremy Saulnier makes ugly films. Both Blue Ruin and Green Room are gritty and violent exercises that dispatch their characters at random, mid-sentence, with minimal dignity. They provide an anti-cinematic view of brutality, far away from the John Wicks and Ethan Hunts of the world. What keeps Saulnier’s earlier films from being oppressive is how quickly they move. A scene that culminates in a hacked forearm is onto the next thing, keeping tension on the viewer and preventing them from having their noses rubbed in what is some of modern cinema’s most repulsive violence. This is not the case with Hold the Dark, Saulnier’s third film and the first one he hasn’t written, instead relying on an adapted script from frequent collaborator Macon Blair. The tone of Hold the Dark, introspective and bleak and full of whispered portent, runs counter to what has served Saulnier thus far in his burgeoning career. It’s admirable for a director to try something new, but Hold the Dark is a risk that wasn’t worth taking.
It’s an easy and somewhat lazy impulse to lament humanity. I do it all the time in spite of myself. It doesn’t require much to read a news article or watch a pessimistic film and resign oneself to eventual extinction, as opposed to the much harder work of actually talking to people or even working to improve our oft-dire state. That’s my introversion talking, a trait that I doubt dominates the teaching profession, but it’s not like extroversion is keeping The Kindergarten Teacher’s protagonist from feeling cynical. In Sara Colangelo’s American adaptation of an Israeli film, a culturally-hungry woman finds genius in a place she does not expect to find it, and, feeling trapped by her family and her own lack of insight, blows her life up to be close to a true prodigy. The film does a great job in portraying an obsessive self-regard that clouds out consequential thinking, even as it does a lesser job portraying the object of the obsession.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.