Not many people would look at the films of Paul Schrader and think of the Doctrines of Grace.
However, one viewing of “Taxi Driver,” written by Schrader in 1976, will convince you he understands the starting point of Calvinism’s “total depravity of man.”
Throughout the years Schrader has dug deep into his spiritual struggle to give us some of cinema’s greatest works of transcendental filmmaking. He’s also made some hellishly bad cinema along with it. That’s because the struggle with one’s faith is real.
If it were easy it wouldn’t be housed in the eco-system of faith.
In 1979 Schrader wrote and directed “Hardcore,” starring the historically underrated George C. Scott. It’s a timeless film about sex trafficking in the pornography industry.
The story follows a furniture maker and man of faith searching for his daughter, kidnapped by sleazy, moustached, pornographers in the heart of Los Angeles.
Nothing is ever as it seems in Schrader’s films.
In “Hardcore” you come to understand how the sins of a father can push a child into the arms of someone who will at least “act” like they love you. In one scene, Jake VanDorn, Scott’s character, sits in an airport with a prostitute he’s hired to help him find his daughter. He explains the Doctrine of Grace to her as outlined by the Dutch reformation and with the acronym T.U.L.I.P.
T – Total depravity of man
U – Unconditional election
L – Limited atonement
I – Irresistible grace
P – Perseverance of the saints
With Schrader’s Calvinistic underpinnings he sets this scene perfectly. It’s both respectful of his doctrinal heritage while also being subversive to it. You don’t write that into a film unless you understand it and some part of you believes it. Schrader is a Calvin College graduate and a child of the heavenly kingdom of Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Spirituality in art is about the how, not the what.” “Transcendental filmmakers have a different agenda, they want to draw audiences closer to a transcendental world, using cinematic technology to bring the audience into the holy.” – Paul Schrader
After “Hardcore” Schrader wrote “American Gigolo,” starring a young Richard Gere in the role of a man not able to find love or fulfillment with the indulgences of the flesh, even when being paid for it. “American Gigolo” is a film that had its own troubling story line as to how it ever got made, but the film itself is Schrader’s exploration of lust and fame.
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) November 22, 2016
Schrader went on to dig deep into his spiritual well to bring such transcendental films as “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Light Sleeper,” “Affliction,” “The Comfort of Strangers” and other films written or directed by him over the last four decades.
Many of these films feature his vision where his struggle with faith was at the time.
In 2017 Schrader topped off his Calvinistic influences by exploring Perseverance of the Saints, (the P in the tulip acronym). He cast Ethan Hawke as the pastor of a small church in upstate New York who spirals out of control after an encounter with an unstable environmental activist and his pregnant wife.
“First Reformed” is another case in where Schrader gets the best out of an actor. Hawke, another underrated star, gives a praise-worthy performance and goes all the way with his craft in exploring the character at the hands of his director.
Hawke’s personal faith is unknown to me, but whatever he does or doesn’t have, he struggles with it on camera for all to see. That’s what makes “First Reformed” one of the most transcendental films of our time.
The film was a turning point for Schrader in another way; it was the first time you see him openly struggle with his liberal politics as a master filmmaker who’s heart long ago had been filled by Christ.
Joseph Granda is the founder of Rebel Faith Films. His directorial debut, “The Healing Garden,” is expected for a late 2020 release. Granda has a long history on the stage, in film and in the art world. You can learn more about him at Rebel Faith Films.