"We tell our two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—maybe 10 times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen."
When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that in 1933, it's unlikely he'd have imagined how well it might one day describe the work of filmmaker Paul Schrader. Schrader's career as a director includes a wide variety of stories and styles—from the brutal austerity of Blue Collar to the austere brutality of Affliction, from the elegant decadence of Mishima to the decadent elegance of The Comfort of Strangers, plus plenty of genre exercises (Cat People, Light of Day, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist) in between.
His even more distinguished work as a writer is similarly varied. (If you're going to credit his frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese for being versatile enough to do Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, it's worth noting that Schrader cowrote both films.)
Still, there's no denying that Schrader's most Schraderesque films share a signature narrative framework.
It goes like this: An isolated man on the brink of despair comes to believe, sometimes delusionally, that he is the only person who can save an innocent girl (whom he desires but refuses to sully), from the social decay that has already destroyed him. Fueled by thwarted lust and righteous vengeance, this unreliable narrator lashes out in an act of purgative violence, thereby rescuing her and redeeming himself.
This is obviously the foundation of the unimpeachable Taxi Driver, but it also runs through his writer/director films Hardcore, Light Sleeper, and to a lesser extent American Gigolo. Though it can be hard to tell whether his reliance on the God's Lonely Man Goes Berserk formula constitutes a crutch or a trademark, it remains interesting to note that after nearly 50 years, Schrader keeps dancing with the psychotic martyrdom that brought him.
First Reformed, which Schrader wrote and directed, represents a fascinating variation on his eternal themes. Ethan Hawke plays a dour minister at a nearly moribund Presbyterian church, drinking himself to death by way of mourning his son, who died in Iraq—"a war with no moral justification"—and whom he encouraged to enlist. His narration, in the form of journal entries that are equal parts evasive and confessional, make it clear that he's walking the existentialist tightrope.
He befriends a progressive, young activist couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger) struggling to reconcile their certainty that humankind is eagerly destroying the natural world in the name of petro profits and the baby they're about to bring into the world.
When the husband takes his misgivings too far, the priest becomes even more involved, allowing their anxiety over the coming eco-pocalypse to meld with his own misgivings about his ministry's ties to a prosperity gospel megachurch presided over by Cedric "the Entertainer" Kyles, in an excellent dramatic departure.
Throw in a corrupt oil oligarch, a big public event, an extended meditation on the diminished value of pious faith in a totally corrupt age, a couple of longing gazes that last a little too long, and an improvised suicide vest, and you can see the signature conflagratory finale at least a half-hour away. But then the film takes a turn that is neither shocking nor predictable, but that nonetheless radically changes what you thought you'd been seeing and forces you to admit how good it can feel to be wrong.
It also commandingly demonstrates that Schrader is still worth listening to, no matter how many new disguises he comes up with.