In 1972, four years before his debut screenplay “Taxi Driver” hit the screen, Paul Schrader published his Master’s thesis, “Transcendental Style in Film,” on a very different kind of filmmaking. In his essay, Schrader identified how directors as geographically far removed as Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson had arrived at similar formalistic techniques to convey a spiritual or metaphysical dimension in their work.
“I never really thought that I would end up making a film in that way,” admits Schrader, whose relatively confrontational directing credits dissect various forms of extreme and frustrated masculinity, from “American Gigolo” to “Auto Focus.” “I was too in love with psychological realism, with action, with motion and pictures, [whereas] this kind of film means that you have to step away from those elements.”
And yet, Schrader’s latest, “First Reformed,” which premieres in Venice before playing the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, finds the director channeling the austerity of Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” — if the spiritual journey of the cleric in question (here played by Ethan Hawke) had found him strapping on a suicide vest and deciding whether to blow up his own congregation.
So, even as his style merges with the so-called “slow cinema” that has emerged in Bresson’s wake, Schrader remains true to themes of his more explosive oeuvre — and the device of a potentially unreliable outsider protagonist who supplies his own narration, à la “Light Sleeper” — as mounting anxiety around ecological disasters, the cost of war and the contemporary threat of terrorism push Hawke’s character first to despair, and then to potentially violent extremes. Just how personal are those concerns?
“Obviously, it’s something that I’ve been fooling around with since my first script,” Schrader says. “And I did get visited by Homeland Security this year because I posted something on Facebook about Donald Trump and the John Brown moment we are now in. So they came and visited me to ascertain whether I am a threat to the president’s life. I am not — except in theory. There is this sense in the world now that something must be done, and it’s tearing this character apart.”
What “First Reformed” shares in common with Bresson — apart from Hawke’s diary-keeping country minister undergoing a crisis of faith — is Schrader’s use of “withholding devices” (techniques such as fixed cameras, long shots, repeated actions, the lack of a musical score) that encourage audiences to extrapolate something deeper or higher than what is literally being depicted on screen.
Schrader has spent the past few years studying the state of international art cinema, preparing a new essay (on how subsequent directors, from Andrei Tarkovsky to Bela Tarr, have innovated and advanced “transcendental style”) to accompany a reprint of his thesis by the U. of California Press next February. “They’re making slow movies faster than you can watch ’em,” he says, although one such project, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” proved especially inspirational to him in recent years.
In “First Reformed,” he employs the same 1.33 aspect ratio and what he calls a “lean away” performance from Hawke (one that invites viewers to lean toward the film and fill in the blanks themselves). The result is an unnerving portrait that delves into Schrader’s own soul — drawing from his religious upbringing, seminary education and eschatological concerns.
“I spent 40 years getting there,” explains Schrader, who goes on to quote a line from Sam Peckinpah’s first feature, “Ride the High Country,” in which Joel McCrea’s character says, “All I want is to enter my house justified.” After making this courageous — and inevitably divisive — project, Schrader finally feels justified: “I can hang up my spurs and saddle if I want.”