Film’s physicality is one aspect of Refn’s gleeful proclamations of doom.
There’s a near-consensus among critics that 2018 was an unusually strong year for film, and I can’t disagree. My list for the year is heavily tilted to the 4-star and above, even with some glaring gaps in the mix – I missed BlacKKKlansman, for instance; I’m waiting to see Roma screened at the Castro in 70 mm, like the cinephile tool I am; I didn’t see the new Claire Denis, or the new Andrew Bujalski, or the new Hang Sang-soo, or the new Frederick Wiseman.
Paul Schrader’s bracing, bruising First Reformed is the filmmaker’s most urgent offering in years, and one of 2018’s best. A warped retelling of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest filtered through Schrader’s trademark fixations, First Reformed focuses on something curiously absent from contemporary stories, even as it animates many moments of our public and private lives: despair at climate change, and almost paralyzing anxiety over the world we leave behind.
One of cinema’s great ironies is that, for all the talk of representation and making the hidden visible, much of its power comes from withholding instead. Certainly this is true of slow cinema, of that poetic tendency which, in his landmark 1972 treatise, Paul Schrader called “the transcendental style in film.” The eternally self-lacerating Taxi Driver scribe’s brilliant latest, First Reformed, deserves a chapter in the updated edition – and the boxy image of a despairing reverend, mixing whiskey and Pepto Bismal while researching suicide vests on a laptop in a parsonage, should go on the cover.