First Reformed

[Spoilers below]

With First Reformed, Paul Schrader moulds his lifelong influences – Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – into a film that resembles theirs in many ways, but is an entirely personal project. Veteran Ernst Toller (a terrific Ethan Hawke) lost his son in the Iraq War and was down in the dumps. Abundant Life, a corporatized megachurch in Albany, decided to give him a break by appointing as the reverend at the eponymous church in a small town in New York State. The church is of historical significance, but is mostly a tourist spot surviving by the grace of Abundant Life. As preparations are on for the 250th anniversary celebrations, Toller is requested by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to talk to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a militant eco-activist despondent over climate change. In an arresting conversation, which he compares to Jacob’s tussle with the angel, Toller turns out ill-equipped to console Michael, who doesn’t want Mary to have their baby. When he thwarts Michael’s plans for a suicide attack, presumably against a locally-headquartered, super-polluting corporate behemoth, Balq, Michael commits suicide. The reverend gives Michael a service that includes a protest song, a gesture that doesn’t go well with Abundant Life or its sponsor Balq. Disappointed with the Church’s blissful inaction towards pressing questions of our times, Toller finds himself filling the dead man’s shoes in several ways and experiences a crisis of faith of his own. Alcoholic and suffering from cancer, he decides to continue Michael’s mission.

The Gordian knot at the heart of Toller’s spiritual crisis, it appears, is the incompatibility between two world views, between the Church’s teaching of courageous acceptance and the global consciousness of the young people the reverend encounters. When Michael despairs about bringing a child into a world that’s heading towards disaster, Toller has no convincing answer; he asks Michael to choose courage over reason in face of uncertainty. It’s an appeal for resignation that Toller himself gets from Pastor Jeffers: it may be that the destruction of the world is part of God’s plan. That advice is not just an absolution of individual responsibility, it’s a falsification of one’s spiritual turmoil – the same kind of emotional violence that positivists wreak on people claiming to have experienced religious transport. What elevates Toller’s crisis of faith above a notional concept and gives it a particular force is that it’s rooted in the character’s personal history. Toller’s disillusionment with the Church’s tendency to reduce political issues to an abstract question of providence stems from his own guilt of not having questioned his faith in abstractions like patriotism. That his son was killed in Iraq is a political tragedy, not simply a personal misfortune as the Church would have it.

Michael’s response to his despair is calculated political violence. When Toller takes the explosives away from Michael’s garage, he also takes his life purpose away, turning the violence inward and killing Michael. Toller’s response to his crisis is identical. He comes in the line of Schrader loners, present in every scene of the film, trying to work through their anguish by acting on the world around. Toller’s spiritual sickness feeds on and into his physical sickness. He tries to give meaning to his impending death and cherry-picks ideas from the Bible to justify his turn to extremism, just as Jeffers cherry-picks to justify status quo. To preserve is to participate in creation, he writes, and thus to do God’s work. And to preserve, you have to sometimes destroy. When his bombing plan is hindered, Toller wraps himself with barbed wire and tries to drink drain-cleaning acid. Mary stops him, they embrace each other in a coupling of love and death as the camera roves around them to end the film. Ultimately agnostic, Schrader’s film cannot claim to provide a solution to the dilemma, only a momentary suspension.

The Franciscan austerity of First Reformed derives from an acute film-awareness. Right from its 1.37:1 aspect ratio (same as that of Winter Light) and its old-style cursive credits, the film announces itself as the inheritor of a cinema that Schrader described as transcendental. There is, specifically, a Bressonian vein in the choice of having a priest maintain a diary, his solemn voiceover, the opening shot of the church and the style of editing. The major part of the film unfolds between two Sundays, but the film doesn’t give provide any explicit markers. Sparsely furnished, with a large living room containing a sole, inexplicable chair, Toller’s Ordet-inspired quarters as well as Mary’s house are products of a theatrical mise en scène, a possible one-act play in which the character paces around the stage and monologues to the audience. Scenes transition from master shot to close-ups sparingly, which renders the latter more effective. A shot of Toller pinned in his seat holding a coffee cup drives home his agitation all the more directly. The tight, fixed-camera shot of the reverend and Mary on bicycle is Ozuvian in its liberative simplicity. Toller himself is an extremely self-aware character, analytical about his own feelings and cognizant of the vanity of his diary-keeping project. He compares writing to praying and, in his torment, Schrader recognizes the spiritual quandary of an era.


Another film with religious overtones, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! couldn’t be more different from Schrader’s sober film, what with its unabashed formal and thematic excesses. It showboats from the opening shot where Lawrence’s bloody face stares at the viewer against a burning backdrop. A writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live in their isolated bungalow surrounded by vegetation. The building, the writer’s childhood home, was burnt down in a fire and the woman is rebuilding it entirely from memory. Her husband is experiencing a writer’s block and is growing aloof from her. When a suspicious fan (Ed Harris) comes into their house, he senses inspiration and invites him to stay over. The following day, the guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) moves in and one of their sons murders the other in the bungalow. The writer lets the mourning take place at his house, making way for the encroachment of dozens of obnoxious friends. When he finally finishes his play, it becomes a success and a horde of fans invades his house, destroys his property, and kills his baby, the writer welcoming all of it. The woman remains a helpless witness to the disintegration of her own life. Aronofsky’s film shifts from psychological horror to outright camp by the time it ends. The transformation is deliberate and is intended to sever the film from wan realism.

Aronofsky’s film is of a piece with The Wrestler and Black Swan, but with one crucial change: the narrative perspective is no more that of the artist figure, but of the woman he lives with. This tempers the overarching narcissism of the earlier films and turns the gaze back on to the artist, whose self-love now becomes a problem, the main problem. The artist here is a needy, vampiric god, sucking all the love and attention from his environment. The filmmaker is entirely critical of Bardem’s writer, to the point that he becomes a caricature, a pawn in sway to the adulation of his fans. Aronofsky’s sympathy is instead with Lawrence’s character. She is a caregiver, a homemaker maintaining the house and nurturing their child. Her dedication is met with indifference, the writer preferring to be left alone or recognized by others. Pfeiffer’s character grills her about her love life and insults her for not having a child. Ed Harris calls her a pretty face. Most direct and effective among the many allegories mother! accommodates is that of the universal mother itself.

The value of mother!, however, resides less in the interpretations it yields, which are no doubt numerous, than in the unrelenting atmosphere it creates that doesn’t allow the viewer a moment’s breather. There is perhaps a streak of sadism in dragging a character through an endless series of distressing situations which she has no power to tackle. This, of course, is a horror movie trope, the last girl who has to go through hell to come out alive. Aronofsky’s success lies in how closely he binds the viewer’s perception to that of the character. His characteristic, ever-moving camera is always fixed on Lawrence and from up close; the viewer is hardly allowed a glimpse of her surroundings before she is. This claustrophobic locking down of the viewer amplifies the horror and the suspense tenfold. Adding to this is the accentuated sound design that magnifies ambient noise to a point of threat. There are low frequency hums at certain points, but there’s no real musical score – a lack that’s barely noticeable.

Aronofsky can direct the hell out of a scene and if mother! provokes extreme reactions, it’s less because of its raw material than the way the filmmaker has turned it into a bludgeon that assaults the viewer from the get-go. He threads one gratuitous, strong image over another, one potent sound choice over another to effect a sensory overload. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique draw their visual cues from Andrew Wyeth as much from Tarkovsky, Malick or Hitchcock. It’s all one steady, monotonic build-up till the apocalypse at the end. Every time Lawrence’s character has a chance to intervene or get a word in, there’s an interruption – a fit of cough, the phone ringing, the stove going off – that pulls her back on the everyday treadmill. She’s always cleaning the house, fixing stuff, trying in vain to prevent its inevitable collapse. In this respect, she’s a reincarnation of the Deneuve character from Repulsion as much as she recalls Rosemary. The house is her sanctuary and its violation constitutes a rape. She is destroyed by the film’s end and replaced by another woman. The film’s campiness veers into noxious territory at times, but Aronofsky must be given the props for hyperbolizing as full-blown cinematic horror what is otherwise low-key everyday horror.

Pain and Gain

After gods, after revolutions, after financial markets, the body is becoming our truth system. It alone endures, it alone remains. In it we place all our hopes, from it we expect a reality which elsewhere is leaking away. It has become the centre of all powers, the object of all expectations, even those of salvation. We are those strange, hitherto unknown humans: the people of the body.

–The Coming of the Body (Hervé Juvin)


When we first see Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) in Pain & Gain (2013), he is pumping away outside a gym facility in Miami. Dwarfed by an image of physical perfection better than him, he heaves out short phrases of self-motivation with every crunch: “I’m big… I’m strong… I’m hot”. It’s the summer of 1995, we are told, six months after Lugo’s fate-sealing detour from ordinary life, and it’s time he paid for his transgression. Cut to the past. “My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness”, go the first words of the voiceover, channeling the opening lines of The Godfather (1972), where a man declares that he believes in America. The two sentiments are not too far off for, according to Lugo, to be fit is to be American. To not groom your body is then to be unpatriotic: “If you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything. That’s what makes the US of A great. When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet.” The body in Pain & Gain is not simply a metaphor for America, its promises and its cult of the self; it’s the very incarnation of these things, of the Great American Dream.

Lugo believes in this dream more sincerely than anyone else. He takes pride in being self-made. He reads biographies – embodiments of the myth of self-sufficiency – of men whose “reach exceeds their grasp”. He borrows his world view from the movies and takes at face value the successes of Rocky Balboa, Tony Montana and Michael Corleone – various manifestations of the American way to the top. Lugo’s eventual failure is not because he hasn’t imbibed well the value of individual enterprise; it is because he has imbibed it too well. Like all his well-meaning compatriots with social ambitions, he believes that you can get whatever you want in life if you worked hard enough. No pain, no gain. But then he also assimilates the dark corollary of that ideology: if you don’t have what you wanted, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. He attends self-improvement classes and convinces himself that he just needs to be a “doer” to transcend his rickety financial situation. ‘Do’ becomes an intransitive verb for Lugo. He does things to get what he wants. It doesn’t matter whether or not he does the right things.  He thinks he can improve himself and also make America a better place by simply acting out of free will. He becomes blind to any effect the external world can have on him, to any invisible boundaries that might thwart his endeavours. The more hopeless his circumstance, the more he seems oblivious to it. And every time a situation gets out of hand, he regresses back to the one thing he has control over: his body.

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

The acute observations that Pain & Gain makes helps foreground the body-centrism that marks postmodern ethos. It recognizes that the body is today both the most-prized capital for the individual as well as the most-productive domain of his investment, that, instead of being a means to a transcendental end (religious mortification, ideological sacrifice), it is the end in itself. While it might be true that, in a post-historical cultural climate, the body becomes the site of resistance to all homogenizing, subjectivizng ideologies, only the most fiercely individualistic and socially-isolated among us can succeed in rejecting the corporeal norms that the images around impose on us. What doesn’t overtly instruct us in the name of beauty instructs us under the guise of health. But then, within a fractured food system, even health becomes a luxury of the affluent. A few centuries ago, the body presented a sort of contradiction to the seeming omnipotence of wealth. Not just in its eventual mortality but also in its essential intolerance of alimentary richness. Now, the wealthy buy their way to better food while the rest sustain themselves on industrially-manufactured junk. (One of Lugo’s clients expresses his distaste for salads, pointing out that it was invented by the poor. He’s right, but it is today the preeminent rich man’s food.) If good health, longevity and comfort be the prerogatives of the well-off, it also gives rise to a curious desire for physical exertion. Millionaires tending their own garden in order to dirty their hands, artists taking up projects that make them feel closer to the working class, enthusiasm for expensive extreme sports, increasing population of premium gymnasiums – the examples of  this sublimated death drive are numerous. I am reminded of the protagonist of Cosmopolis (2012), whose alienation from all tangible reality provokes a search for physically destructive experience.

Lugo identifies with the idea of body as the locus of economic activity instinctively. He thinks that physique is an initial capital given to everyone of us whose full potential needs to be realized through constant self-improvement, and that to squander these “gifts” is un-American. (Even the arm candy he hires, an east-European stripper, is convinced that her body is a passport to the American Dream.) He puts to use this theory of body-as-capital without reflection or qualification. He promises his boss, the gym owner, that he will triple the institution’s membership in a short span of time. He tells him that his facility has no chance of surviving if it continues to concentrate on its elderly members, the reasons being (a) that the old are more at risk of injury and hence are bad publicity and (b) that the aged have lesser motivation and time left to invest on their bodies compared to the young. The gym, Lugo says, needs new blood: “you cannot build a muscle Mecca without muscle”. He entices younger customers with free body waxing service. He gives free membership to strippers to attract newer clients. His Sun Gym is a veritable meat market where muscle needs to be invested to get more muscle.

Pain and Gain

Lugo’s rise on the social ladder is predicated on a similar maximization of his body potential. He ropes his fellow gym instructors Adrian and Paul (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) into his kidnapping scheme on the conviction that the trio, with their superior athletic ability, can do the job better than even Delta Force. Adrian needs money for the expensive injections that he must take for his sexual dysfunction and for his dinners with chubby dates. Even the pious but dimwitted Paul, whose religiosity and its demands of material transcendence must counterpoint the bodily preoccupations of his comrades, believes that God has given him the power to knock people out if needed. The trio’s morbid crimes continuously run against the intractability of the corporeal. Pain & Gain is one of the few films that I can recall which underlines how difficult it is to kill someone, while acknowledging how easily modern culture enables it. The gang tries to knock off their captive; they torture him, crash him, burn him and run him over twice, in vain. At a later point, they struggle to get rid of two corpses by chopping them up. (The breast implants of one of the two victims go on to become incriminating evidence.) Their whole rigmarole of detention, torture and extortion takes place in a gonzo warehouse for sex toys – a cross between industrialized commerce and body idealism; corporal capitalism, so to speak.

There is no ostensible moral compass within the film and all the characters fall under the critical hammer. There are neither uncompromised heroes nor unblemished victims here. Even the respectable private investigator (Ed Harris) who finally nails Lugo’s racket seems to get a gentle rap on the knuckles. As he comes back to his chic villa by the shore after wrapping up the case, his wife remarks, lamenting the murders: “Some people just don’t know a good thing when it’s staring them in the face.” The seeming sincerity of her words is undermined as it’s immediately juxtaposed with Lugo’s desire to be like everyone else. It’s a stark reminder that this law enforcer, who can’t simply sit in his posh home and enjoy his retired life, is not exactly cut from a different existential fabric compared to Lugo. None of this is to say that the film is blithely cynical, for as much as we recognize the depravity of all its characters, we also impart our sympathy to each of them in turns. Like in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the film’s moral position is sufficiently evidenced by its aesthetic choices and doesn’t need to be elucidated through a literary mouthpiece. Both Daniel Lugo and Jordan Belfort are self-appointed Nietzscheans who put to full use their physical and mental prowess to cheat and beat the system. Their success is the grotesque form of the aspirations of those around them, but unimpeded by dubious moral compunctions.

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

Pain & Gain is directed with a verve and nerviness comparable to Scorsese, whose influence is palpable in the film’s relayed voiceovers, sound bridges, gliding camerawork, rapid shifts in timeline, economy of exposition and high-key performances. While the on-screen texts seem too clever by half, director Michael Bay’s other stylistic excesses – his flamboyant, market-friendly colour palette, his sporadic submission to vulgarity and echoing of adolescent attitudes – are all fruitfully absorbed by the polemic edge of the material. The best sequences of the film, in fact, display an elegant classicism rare in the post-continuity cinema of Hollywood. (Note how laconic and sharp the sequence composition is when the trio meets at the gym for the first time: trust, suspicion and solidarity transmitted in a few shots of tightly controlled actor gestures and cuts.) It’s a small wonder that a much-derided director and largely-undistinguished pair of screenwriters could come together to produce a work of tremendous cultural insight and expressiveness. It may be that Pain & Gain is a fluke masterpiece, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.