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Film

Paul Schrader explains the connection between 'Taxi Driver' and 'First Reformed'

Paul Schrader isn’t just one of the most celebrated screenwriters of his generation, he has also directed wonderful gems such as Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Light Sleeper. Schrader has forged ahead with new projects as well, including the likes of The Card Counter which was regarded by many as of one the best films of 2021.

However, among Schrader’s recent directorial efforts, the powerful 2017 drama First Reformed towers over the rest. Cited as one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of the last decade, First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke as a troubled pastor who is struggling to cope with the obsolescence of a historically significant church in modern times.

First Reformed asks a lot of questions about the fundamental nature of the human condition, contextualised within the frameworks of modernity. Ranging from anti-natalist perspectives generated within the void of despair to environmental activism and suicide, Schrader manages to construct the perfect atmosphere of religious crisis and self-doubt.

While speaking about the project, Schrader has acknowledged the evident influence of other pioneers such as Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer on First Reformed. In addition to masterpieces such as Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Schrader also noted that his own works had a major impact on the film as well – especially his screenplay for Taxi Driver.

However, for Schrader, it all started when he was working as a film critic in his early years and had the privilege of attending a screening of Bresson’s mesmerising, hypnotic film Pickpocket. It completely changed Schrader’s life since he realised that he could make it in the film industry as someone other than a critic. The film also allowed Schrader to have a revelatory experience because he saw the articulation of a cinematic style that he wanted to achieve himself.

Schrader was so moved that he ended up writing the seminal book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer and he followed it up with the screenplay of Taxi Driver when he was going through a particularly bleak period in his life. “Fifty years later, those two seeds which fell in the petri dish came [together], wound up and I made First Reformed,” Schrader said.

The director went on to add that he had based the protagonist on the central character of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, also adding the narrative device of a journal which Schrader had used in Taxi Driver as well. He had borrowed the spiritual theme of the film from Dreyer’s Ordet but Schrader insisted that Taxi Driver’s influence was holding all these elements together.

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