Martin Scorcese

First Reformed

13/07/18

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorscese’s devastating study of a lonely outsider driven to an act of extreme violence – but as a director, he has never really quite hit the mark. There was his fitful remake of Cat People in 1982; his study of the Japanese poet Mishima in 1985; and, more recently, his self-produced film, The Canyons, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the flagging career of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed arrives in the UK garlanded with praise by the American critics and it certainly represents Schrader’s most assured work as a director, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story it most resembles is Taxi Driver. It’s as though he can’t quite shrug off the influence of his finest achievement, even after all these years.

Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, resident priest of the titular church, an ancient clapboard affair that these days is more a haunt for tourists and souvenir-collectors than an actual congregation. Toller has experienced some misery in his recent past – his son, a soldier, died on active service in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage has subsequently failed because of that loss. It’s clear he’s been given this post mostly out of sympathy and he’s doing his level best to handle the role, but he’s increasingly troubled by the fact that his church is just a small part of a much bigger concern called Abundant Life, whose major benefactor is one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local businessman who has his fingers in some very dodgy – and environmentally damaging – enterprises. To add to his problems, Reverend Toller is suffering from some kind of intestinal cancer and is existing mostly on a diet of whisky and Pepto Bismol.

Then he’s approached by young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, taking a break from her usual more lightweight roles). She is pregnant but deeply concerned about her partner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who is clearly having doubts about bringing a child into such a troubled world. Toller agrees to talk to the young man and finds himself increasingly agreeing with Michael’s point of view. As events develop, he is also irresistibly drawn to Mary herself. And, as he struggles to deal with that realisation, he begins to contemplate an act of unspeakable violence…

This is an extremely dour and sombre film, shot in desaturated colour and projected in an almost square 1:37:1 ratio. The interiors of Toller’s house are distressingly bare and there’s a strange, almost subliminal score, courtesy of Brian Williams, that seems to amp up the sense of alienation we share with him. Hawke is excellent in the title role and the central premise of the aspirations of the church having to bow down in the face of big business are deftly explored. It’s by no means a perfect film – and I can’t help feeling that some of the praise that’s been lavished upon it may have been somewhat exaggerated – but it’s compelling enough to see you through to its odd and profoundly unsettling conclusion. Is it possible for a priest to maintain his faith in such a corrupt and devastated world? Does religion even have a place in it? Schrader’s film is brave enough to ask the questions, even if it can’t quite supply the answers.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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You Were Never Really Here

10/03/18

There’s plenty to admire in You Were Never Really Here. Lynne Ramsay’s edgy, coiled-spring of an action movie, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, is deeply unsettling, even if I can’t help drawing comparisons with an even better film, Taxi Driver, with which it shares a central premise.

Ramsay’s take on the idea is a much more fragmentary affair than Martin Scorcese’s 1976 masterpiece, flickering eerily in and out of past trauma and often showing us images that turn out to be no more than sick fantasies in the head of the central character.

That character is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix),  a shambling, bearlike presence in this film, muttering in monosyllables and wandering morosely from scene to scene as he metes out grim retribution to those he believes are beyond saving. He’s a traumatised ex-soldier and former FBI agent, who now earns a crust  tracking down missing girls – and sadly there seems to be no shortage of them in the cities of America. In his down time, Joe cares for his aging mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he shares a touching, almost childlike bond.

Joe has a healthy paranoia about being seen by others (hence the title) and always does his level best to stay off the radar. His services are enlisted by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped by a well-connected paedophile. She is being held hostage in a city hotel room, so Joe goes in to rescue her, armed with his favourite weapon, a ball-peen hammer. But he soon comes to fully appreciate just how powerful Nina’s kidnapper is – and it isn’t long before he has become a target for the man’s deadly enforcers.

This is an uncompromisingly brutal film, the many scenes of violence somehow made even more affecting by the fact that we glimpse them from a distance, or through the impassive monochrome gaze of a hotel’s security cameras. The action is liberally crosscut with harrowing memories of Joe’s troubled childhood, when he and his mother were regularly terrorised by Joe’s abusive father. It soon becomes apparent that what Joe is seeking more than anything else is some kind of redemption for his own suffering.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s nonetheless mesmerising. Phoenix is utterly convincing in the central role, there’s a bruising score by Johnny Greenwood, and Ramsay directs with a confident, almost hallucinatory style, never over-explaining the story, allowing her viewers to reach their own conclusions through the barrage of conflicting images she immerses them in.

It’s a powerful brew, not for the faint-hearted.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Silence

03/01/17

If I were ever asked to nominate somebody as ‘Greatest Living Film Director,’ Martin Scorcese would be a serious contender for the title. He has an exceptionally strong and eclectic body of work, which includes bona fide masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Good Fellas –and even occasional misfires like The Last Temptation of Christ are never less than interesting. Silence is a film he’s been trying to make for something like thirty years. Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo and co-written by Scorcese with his old collaborator, Jay Cocks, it’s essentially a meditation on the power of belief – and the lengths to which people will go to in order to observe their chosen religion.

In seventeenth century Portugal, two young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), set themselves a difficult mission – to travel to Japan in search of their old tutor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared whilst trying to convert the locals to Christianity. Rumour has come back that Ferreira has ‘apostatised’ – renounced his faith – and is now living the life of a Buddhist under the watchful gaze of his captors. The young priests refuse to believe that this can be the case and they set off on the perilous journey to Japan, knowing that from the minute they arrive they will be in grave danger. Christians are hated there and are cruelly tortured and executed in large numbers. But that’s not to say that the film is necessarily pro (or anti) Christian; indeed, questions are raised about the very nature of missionary work, and the religious zeal that prompts people to try to force others to accept their ‘truth’.

Silence is a powerful slow-burner of a film, that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. It takes a while to unfold an intriguing story and with a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, it will undoubtedly test the patience of many; but there’s a great deal here to enjoy – the ravishing cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, Dante Feretti’s costume design and a superb central performance by Andrew Garfield, clearly delivering on a role that’s a bit of a stretch from his earlier turn as Spiderman. Liam Neeson, now the go-to guy for any performance requiring gravitas, delivers his cameo role with aplomb and I particularly like Yosuke Kubozuka as the Jesuit’s guide, Kichijiro, a would-be Christian who continually betrays his chosen faith only to come scrabbling back seeking forgiveness through the act of confession.

There are also some scenes of terrible violence here; the unflinching depictions of the barbaric treatment meted out to those who refuse to renounce their faith are not for the faint-hearted. People are burned alive, crucified and drowned all in the name of religion.

As to the film’s central tenet – is there a God? – Scorcese (who himself trained as a priest before deciding to seek his absolution through celluloid) is wise enough to resist offering a definitive answer. In the end, it is left to the individual viewer to decide. But I would urge you to go and see this film. It may have taken a very long time to bring it to the screen, but in my opinion at least, it has been well worth the wait.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney