Revolving around many of the themes that have characterized his career—subjective desolation, ontological isolation, mental dissolution, masculine despair and impotency—Schrader’s film is an austere, bleak, harrowing confrontation with the God(lessness) of the Anthropocene. Like the restrained existentialist works of the mid-century European art house that Schrader is so clearly indebted to here, the film is less about a clear interpersonal narrative arc than it is a series of piercing questions and intellectual challenges. Is there a place for divinity when we have razed Her creation, pillaged Her earth and polluted Her heavens and plundered Her seas, to make room for human bloat? What is the status of God in a geological epoch when humanity, our machines and machinations, now has the power to cause—though not the power to stop—mass extinction and global catastrophe? Will God forgive us for how we have spoiled the gift of life, or should God forgive us at all—if we have made this Eden into Hell, do we not deserve it?
For all the explicit ways that this is a study of spiritual waning and the degradation of divinity in these modern times, it is also a film about mankind’s new god, a god even older and more violent than that of the Old Testament: Mammon, who Marx called Kapital. Standing in the wreckage of a once beautiful harbor right after dusk—or is it just before dawn?—where earlier he helped scatter the remains of an environmental activist who, in his hopelessness, had committed himself to Dante’s dark wood of the suicides, Hawke’s Rev. Toller practically whispers: “Every act of preservation is an act of creation. Everything preserved renews creation. It’s how we participate in creation.”
Faced with these lines, which reverse Picasso’s famous dictum that “every act of creation is first an act of destruction,” I cannot help but remember a scene from another film I recently watched, Zizek’s guide to ideology. In that film, the Slovene philosopher stands in a massive airplane graveyard in the middle of the African desert, our original Eden now laid waste to, and speaks of the incredible amount of waste produced by Capitalism, and how we must learn to live with (and not abandon or ignore or repress) that detritus, the inevitable rejected residue of perpetual invention for the sake of its own survival, not ours. “Everything preserved renews creation”—we must learn to live WITH our refuse, not refuse it; we must learn how to recycle it and reuse it, how to love creation even in its inhuman excess, how to find hope in the face of our own destruction (the destruction we cause, the destruction we experience), hope when the face of God has turned away from us.
It is a unforgiving film about desolate times, which takes an unflinching look at the heart of human heartlessness and devastation and misery—and yet (those beautiful words of hope itself) there is something undeniably beautiful about this starkness. The cinematography, shot in an unnerving aspect ratio that simultaneously calls back to an older era of filmmaking and contemporary Instagram photography, is slow and sublime. The screenplay is unsurprisingly musical and poetic, the score simple yet agonizing, the direction somehow delicate even when handling these hefty themes. But it is Hawke’s performance, muted but affective, that elevates the film and keeps us listening to the words, listening for the voice of God, a listening that is a type of praying in itself.
Note: Listen, I watch more than my fair share of movies. They are as often incredible examples of ideology and political economy as they are works of world-expanding art. At best, they are thought-provoking, and at worst, they are mediocre entertainment (especially when they fall into that uncanny valley of “so awful it’s fun”). Since I generally write up a few quick thoughts for each movie I watch, and in the interest of making public more of my thinking and writing processes, I figured that I might as well post the occasional review to this blog as well as to my Letterboxd/Rotten Tomatoes accounts.