Paul Schrader is a thief, and a very talented one.
Because he is a director who, before he had the chance to make movies, simply loved them out of all proportion, Schrader’s own work has familiar DNA, swiped piecemeal or wholesale, reworked into new cloth. Because he treasures the Italian Neo-Realists, Ingmar Bergman, and the austere dramas of divine grace made by France’s Robert Bresson, Schrader’s movies can seem like amalgams of influence, filtered through his own Calvinist upbringing in Grand Rapids, Mich. (He was 17 before he saw his first film. It was Disney’s “The Absent-Minded Professor” and he was less than impressed.) Because people often refine themselves as they age, his new movie, “First Reformed,” is both the clearest sum of all those influences and, ironically, the most like Paul Schrader.
The director is in town for the area premiere of “First Reformed” at the Independent Film Festival of Boston; it’s the morning after the screening, and Schrader, 71, is holed up at the Eliot Hotel in the Back Bay, his voice thick with mid-April allergies. He is confessing to the crime of artistic larceny.
“The secret of theft in art is that you have to steal around,” he says. “If you keep going back to the same 7-11, they’ll bust you. So you’re stealing all over the place, and finally you’ve stolen so much that it’s yours.”
His first theft was a 1973 screenplay for a certain Martin Scorsese film, written when Schrader was a little-known film critic and academic with one mildly influential book under his belt, 1971’s “Transcendental Style in Film.” “I saw [Bresson’s] ‘Pickpocket’ ” he says. “I said, ‘I could make a film like that,’ and then, several years later, I wrote ‘Taxi Driver.’ ” It was the first of what Schrader calls his “man in a room” stories, movies in which an isolated protagonist bottles his anxieties and rage in voice-over narration and journal entries before venturing out into the world, often with violent results.
“I returned to that a little bit in ‘[American] Gigolo,’ a lot in ‘Light Sleeper,’ a little bit in ‘The Walker,’ ” Schrader says, referring to films he wrote and directed in 1980, 1992, and 2007. But “First Reformed,” which comes along after a messy and little-seen career patch (2013’s “The Canyons,” 2014’s “Dying of the Light,” 2016’s “Dog Eat Dog”), may be the apotheosis of Schrader’s “man in a room” films, and it puts him back in the spotlight with a riveting tale of a small-town reverend undergoing a crisis of faith.
The movie stars Ethan Hawke in a powerfully restrained performance as the pastor, and it moves with quiet but increasingly tense inevitability toward a frightening and even surreal reckoning. And, yes, it cribs from a lot of the films Schrader loves, about which he is happy to cite chapter and verse. Dressed entirely in crisp dark colors, his top button buttoned, the filmmaker is looking rather priestly himself.
“I had the main character from [Bresson’s ‘Diary of a] Country Priest,’” he explains. “I had the set-up from ‘Winter Light,’ the Bergman film. I had the ending from [Carl Theodor Dreyer’s] ‘Ordet.’ I had the levitation scene from Tarkovsky’s ‘The Mirror.’ And then other bits of thievery. The barbed wire from [John Huston’s] ‘Wise Blood.’
“What held it all together was the glue of ‘Taxi Driver.’ That monomaniacal intensity where you’re telling a story from inside one person’s view and don’t let the audience outside the story. You get them to identify with this person, and after about 45 minutes of identifying, the person starts to. . . veer off. And then you find yourself, as a viewer, in a place where you’re identifying with someone you don’t feel is worthy of your identification. And that’s when interesting things happen.”
Indeed they do, and it’s worth pointing out that for all the borrowing that goes on in “First Reformed,” the movie is both an organic whole and a relevant fable for an era of looming apocalypse. Already mourning a son he sent off to the Iraq War, the pastor is asked by a young parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) to talk with her husband (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who has come to believe humanity is doomed. The fear of ecological collapse is added to the pastor’s personal burden of guilt to send him into a dramatic spiral.
Schrader shares the character’s pessimism if not his despair. “People say ‘Save the planet,’ ” he says. “The planet’s just fine. What’s not fine is the people on it, and I think those people have pretty much made their decision — that it’s too much pain to try to save future generations.” The director and his star bonded over the writings of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who sounded an early environmental warning before his untimely death in 1968 and whose writings are name-checked in the movie.
The glowing reception for “First Reformed” at film festivals around the world has been a small but genuine comfort; the movie opens theatrically in Boston this Friday and is already considered a high point in Schrader’s filmography. “I haven’t had a bad screening of this film,” he says with the amazement of a man who has known his share of bad screenings. “When I was editing it, I said to the editor, ‘Well, we’ll know a lot more about this film once we’ve had our bad screening.’ And we never did. So I feel very fortunate.”
He has a fresh edition of “Transcendental Style in Film” out from University of California Press, featuring a lengthy new introduction in which Schrader wrestles with an additional half century of Slow Cinema. It’s fitting — almost poetic justice, really — that his new film so gracefully and forcefully closes the circle with the movies that moved him so long ago.
When the book was initially published in 1971, Schrader assumed he’d never make movies himself. “I didn’t think I had the toolkit,” he says now. “I didn’t think I had the personality. I thought I would just be making dreadful little flops, and after one or two tries my career would be over.” After 19 films as a director, many of which he wrote (and after writing a total of four scripts for Scorsese, including “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”), it seems fitting that this professorial filmmaker with an interest in violence, redemption, and guilt would steal his way toward a work close to both his obsessions and the movies that inspired him.
“Whenever anyone tried to connect the films I was making with that book, I would always say, ‘No, no, no. That’s not me. I’m too intoxicated by action and empathy and sex and violence, and you won’t catch me skating on that Bressonian ice.’ And then three years ago I had an occasion to give an award to [director] Pawel Pawlikowsky for ‘Ida.’ We were talking about how the economics of film had changed and how it was feasible to make these kinds of films now in a way that it wasn’t before. After that, I walked back uptown in New York, and I just said to myself, ‘It’s time. It’s time to write that movie you always swore you would never write.’ ”Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.