If Saturday in the sport of golf is known as moving day, then Saturday at DIFF was known as premier day. Bringing a variety of mid-level studio titles to the festival certainly drew in the crowds and murmur. I skipped the Mister Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, since it opens in just a few weeks hence. By all accounts, I missed a communal theater experience awash in tears and feelgood euphoria in these dark times. Two other big premiers were on my radar, however.
One of these was Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Probably the polar opposite of euphoric and feelgood — although some decipher its delirious finale as something close to soul redeeming — the auteur writer and director’s film comes completely “as advertised,” which is to say very challenging and quite heavy, man. I suppose I could petulantly blame my late showing after a long day of three other films as the reason I didn’t totally connect with its wavelength, but that would be disingenuous.
There’s much to like in Schrader’s stringent vision of a priest (Ethan Hawke) having a major crisis of faith after coming in contact with a young couple. The wife (played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried) asks Hawke to speak with her husband about his recent depression. With a baby on the way, she’s naturally concerned, especially after he expresses the wish to have the baby aborted, since his experience with environmental activist groups has left him hopeless and lost about the Earth’s future. You know, global warming and all.
It doesn’t take long to enlist Hawke’s conflicted priest to the husband’s point of view, even after the husband takes drastic measures. Hawke’s Reverend Toller spirals further into doubt, alcoholism and confused sentiments. Add to the fact he may have terminal cancer and is recording all his thoughts in a disturbing stream of consciousness voice-over narration, and Hawke delivers a mesmerizing performance, rife with angst and twitching body language. Portraying someone sliding into a dark mirror image of himself is always tricky, but he makes it believable and his voice-over, which serves as the anchor of the film’s mordant view, lulls one into a state of slight identifiable agreement. Even when things go off the rails, we sort of understand.
Firmly rooted in Schrader’s lifelong exploration of man’s tortured rhetoric with his spirituality, it also comes the closest to Schrader cribbing a Robert Bresson film. Call this his Diary of a Country Priest (1951). If Schrader has been mimicking Bresson’s transcendental style for decades now, First Reformed is almost a distillation of everything from the cancer Travis Bickle believes he has in Taxi Driver (1976) to the simple “man in a room” idea Schrader has often curated most of his scripts around. If nothing else, First Reformed is exciting for the way in which he’s been working out the Bresson kinks since the mid-70’s.
Shot in the same austere style as the film’s tone, I think repeat viewings will only enrich this film. Getting through the first half, which is basically a series of very dense conversations about God, free will, man’s place in nature and other theories of relationships, can be exhausting. And wow, the conversations after the screening definitely skewed the spectrum from virulent hatred to shaken admiration. I fell pretty much in between both.
The other big star-studded event of the day included Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead. Boasting the most recognizable cast of the festival, including Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell, Bill Camp, Ciaran Hinds and Michael Greyeyes, the film is an interesting history lesson wrapped in a very cliched and uninteresting film.
Following the travails of a widowed East Coast woman who bravely travels to the West in order to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (and becoming an activist in the process), the film features solid acting, but it’s so acute in hitting all the right beats and playing out the traditional themes of expansionist guilt and staunchly-drawn lines of good and evil that it loses sight of any originality. The largely middle-aged crowd ate it up, though, so summer arthouse box office prospects look promising.
Another rare misfire at the festival so far has been Anthony Pedone’s An American In Texas. A mosaic of life in the small coastal Texas town of Victoria in 1990, it’s a film that achieves a strong command of time and place around its ensemble cast. What doesn’t work is its jumble of ideas, ranging from anti war sentiments to small town dead-end-drive malaise that becomes overbearing as the film winds down.
The malaise comes largely from its group of punk rock bandmates, each struggling with their own throttled existence and levels of parental disinterest. A romance develops between Chad (James Paxton) and new girl in town Kara (Charlotte Best). Chad’s other friends in the band, including Paul (J.R. Villareal), Zac (Sam Dillon), and Billy (Tony Cavelero), spend most of their days avoiding the looming spectre of the oil refineries that their parents work at, choosing to drop acid and play unique games of smashing up the interiors of houses. Of course, it’s all fun and games until real consequences enter the picture.
Being a labor of love for writer-director Pedone for years and arising from his own experiences in the city of Victoria, it’s justifiable to see An American In Texas as the unwieldy picture it is because the sheer amount of exorcising Pedone has done for his youthful time there. I just wish it honed some of the raggedness into stronger characterizations.
The 2018 Dallas International Festival runs from May 3-10 at the Landmark Magnolia in the West Village. Check http://www.dallasfilm.org for schedule and tickets.