The fifth episode of the DC Universe original streaming series Doom Patrol is many things — the conclusion of the “Cult Of The Unwritten Book” two-parter, the return of Alan Tudyk’s Mr. Nobody and Timothy Dalton’s “Chief” Niles Caulder (well, sort of, and only temporarily — but he comes in for more screen time than in any installment to date), a wild and inventive departure from its Grant Morrison/Richard Case “source material” — but first, foremost, and always, it is Jane‘s story.

Diane Guerrero’s “Crazy” Jane is the heart and soul of this one, as we get the most detailed look yet into her troubled and mysterious past and tantalizing hints that, as bad as what we see is, what we don’t yet know is surely even worse. The puzzle of what the “Paw Patrol” title is all about is eventually solved here, but the puzzle that is Jane — well, that’s going to take considerably more “unpacking” to resolve. That ism assuming it’s even possible to do so.

From her 1970s punk rock days to her stay in a particularly sadistic psychiatric facility to the origins of her powers to her first meeting with The Chief, this is a journey  through Jane’s past — but it’s a past in flux, one that’s changing on the fly. Mr. Nobody and Caulder have forged an alliance to stop The Decreator, you see, and it involves some serious chronological fuckery — in fact, this is the most “timey-wimey” story to appear on TV screens since the most self-indulgent period of Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who, but fortunately it’s far less annoying.

That’s probably because Doom Patrol head honcho Jeremy Carver hasn’t been entrenched in his position long enough to develop any excesses yet, and is still committed to story and character development over and above putting his “signature” on his work, methinks. Certainly he’s giving his writers a fair amount of freedom — Shoshana Sachi, who scripted this episode, takes things in a remarkably different direction than long-time fans of the comic will be expecting here, incorporating a persona and plotline for Jane loosely based on the most recent iteration of the comic by Gerard Way and Nick Derington into the proceedings, but in service of an entirely new and novel resolution to a story almost three decades old. I’ll refrain from specifics and “spoilers,” let’s just say that to stop a cult, sometimes you need to start a cult.

For fans of the other characters, rest assured — they’ve all got plenty to do here, too. April Bowlby’s Rita Farr shows a hitherto-unseen maternal streak, Matt Bomer/Matthew Zuk’s Larry Trainor gains some new perspective on how to resolve his shared-body standoff with the so-called “Negative Spirit,” Joivan Wade’s Cyborg learns the limits of his leadership abilities and his own techno-physical form, and Brendan Fraser/Riley Shanahan’s Cliff Steele exhibits some real vulnerability when he believes his — hell, all of our — days are numbered. Director Larry Teng gets some grade-A performances from his guest cast, as well, with Mark Sheppard turning it supremely pitch-perfect work as rogue occultist Willoughby Kipling and Ted Sutherland wringing a hell of a lot of emotion out of limited screen time as literal “Word Made Flesh” Elliot Patterson. This is a show with amazingly strong scripting and cinematic direction, but it’s the acting that really has been selling things so far, bringing all the goods home.

My one criticism, and it’s a slight one, is that the cliffhanger is maybe a bit too multi-faceted and may even be a case of the show biting off more than it can chew, but the series hasn’t missed a beat yet and has, in fact, more than exceeded expectations every step of the way — so I wouldn’t bet against Carver, his cast, his writers, and his directors pulling off everything that’s foreshadowed in the final few minutes here. Plus, Curtis Armstrong’s Ezekiel the Cockroach gets to make another appearance. What’s not to love?

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Goddamn. I mean, seriously.

It’s no secret that I’m a tremendous fan — nay, admirer — of Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s justly-legendary run on the Doom Patrol comic book, but if you put a gun to my head (and some readers over the years have been, I’m sure, tempted to do just that) and forced me to name a favorite single storyline from their era, I’d probably have to say the one colloquially known as “The Cult Of The Unwritten Book,” so-called because that’s the name of the villains they go up against, a suitably freakish bunch of nihilists who are waiting for the flesh of a certain unwitting sap to literally finish writing itself, given that it’s been manifesting a tattooed “unholy scripture” upon its own surface, in the form of arcane symbols, for quite some time now. Once this unwritten book is, in fact, written, the cult’s intention is to read it and, in so doing, summon forth The Decreator, a shadow of the Big Bang itself tasked with undoing that which its counterpart once did. Fuck the end of the world — The Decreator’s out to wipe out all of existence.

In the comics, the team is joined by “de-frocked” Templar Knight/freelance occult detective Willoughby Kipling — think John Constantine only not cool (Morrison had, in fact, originally wanted to use Constantine for the story, but DC editorial put the kibosh on it as his involvement would run counter to some things taking place concurrently within his own series) — and after a harrowing visit to the cult’s home turf of Nurnheim, a shadow realm that exists within a snow globe, the combined forces of “The World’s Strangest Heroes” and the world’s most annoying magician result, not so much in stopping the destruction of all things, but in slowing it down to the point where nobody can really be bothered to notice what’s happening.

I never never could have imagined, way back in 1990, that I’d ever see this utterly bizarre, mystifying, and singular tale adapted into a big-budget TV production, and yet, here in 2019 —in a world that, I humbly submit, is probably every bit as weird as Nurnheim itself — it’s actually happened. It’s called “Cult Patrol.”  And it’s not just “good,” it’s sensational.

A few liberties with the so-called “source material” have been taken by “showrunner” Jeremy Carver and his script writers, Marcus Dalzine and Chris Dingess — Kipling (magnificently brought to life by actor Mark Sheppard) and Timothy Dalton’s Chief are old acquaintances, the “recipient” of the unwritten book is a Salt Lake City teen named Elliot Patterson (Ted Sutherland), while the actual leader of the cult turns out to be none other than his own mother (Lilli Birdsell) — but a good number of scenes are lifted directly from the page, and those that aren’t offer intriguing new takes on this old story (that, in fairness, most viewers have probably never read anyway) that make it unpredictable all over again while fitting in with the various ongoing “story arcs” of the series as a whole. In short, though, the basics are intact, and when Brendan Fraser/Riley Shanahan’s Cliff Steele and Diane Guerrero’s “Crazy” Jane (who spends most of this episode in her defensive-to-the-point-of-offensive Hammerhead persona) end up in an astonishingly well-realized version of Nurnheim, shit — I was over the moon.

Who knows? I might have loved this story too much, and for too long, to write anything approaching an “objective” review here.

Still, if director Stefan Pleszczynski had screwed anything up, I’d be the first to object, and he doesn’t. The performances of the cast are strong, with April Bowlby really coming into her own as Rita Farr, Joivan Wade playing his de facto leader role as Cyborg to a proverbial “T,” and Matt Bomer/Matthew Zuk’s recently-developed “what the fuck?” persona for Larry Trainor all meriting special mention — Cliff and Jane may be the heart of this particular episode, but it’s not like everyone else is just given “filler” material to pad out the runtime. Everything’s essential, everything’s part of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

My one gripe — and it’s a small one — is that when The Decreator makes its appearance, “Chicken Little was right” is a lot better line to announce its arrival than “Maybe I should have gone with A Hard Day’s Night.” That’s seriously all I’ve got though — other than that, this is some seriously flawless television. We’ll see how part two shakes out next week, but top marks for all involved so far.

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This review, as well as all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, a lot of politics. Your support there not only helps to keep it as a going concern, but also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my fourcolorapocalypse comics site. Joining up is cheap, and I make sure you get plenty to read for your money.

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Three episodes in, the DC Universe streaming television series Doom Patrol is proving to be a genuine amalgamation : yeah, the Grant Morrison/Richard Case era of the comic is still the primary “source material,” but more and more the Arnold Drake/Bruno Premiani influence is being felt, and there’s plenty here that’s altogether new, as well, making this show that rarest of rare things : one where you literally never know what’s going to happen.

The most recent installment, “Puppet Patrol,” is probably the farthest “step out of the nest” yet — for both the characters in Tamara Becher and Tom Farrell’s razor-sharp script, and for the program in a more general, thematic sense. With Timothy Dalton’s Chief missing and a localized search proving fruitless (there’s a surreal and hilarious scene centered around Diane Guerrero’s “Crazy” Jane kicking off the episode that drives this point home with some bloody laughs), a rummage through his lab unearths clues that lead to Paraguay, where we — but, it should be noted, not the characters themselves — know that the de facto team’s equally de facto leader first encountered the now-villainous Mr. Nobody. The real baddie, though, is “ex”-Nazi commandant/mad scientist Strumbanfuhrer Van Fuchs (played by the great Julian Richings), who created Nobody and has been running a super-powers-for-sale tourist trap loosely modeled on Chile’s notorious Colonia Dignidad ever since. So, yeah, our erstwhile heroes have to head south — but how to get there?

With Cyborg (Joivan Wade) stepping into the role of lead strategist largely because nobody else wants the gig, attempts to land the services of a S.T.A.R. Labs private jet courtesy of his farther Silas Stone (Phil Morris) prove fruitless, and so it’s down to their literal “short bus” to do the job — which, needless to say, it’s not up to. The team ends up stranded somewhere well shy of Paraguay, at a roadside motel (where they watch George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead), but when Jane reveals a previously unseen persona known as Flit, with the also- previously unseen power to teleport, she, Matt Bomer/Matthew Zuk’s Larry Trainor, and Brendan Fraser/Riley Shanahan’s Cliff Steele end up pretty much exactly where they wanted to be after all — I say pretty much, because first they have to catch a bus to Nazi-land with an overly-enthusiastic tourist named Steve (Alec Mapa), who’s going there for “The Full Nobody.” What does that mean? Probably more or less exactly what you’re guessing it does.

This leaves Cyborg and Rita Farr (April Bowlby) back at the ranch for some well-executed “character bonding” scenes, and by day’s end, lo and behold, Silas comes through with that jet after all, but by the time the “remainers” meet up with their teammates, a lot has happened. Roll call :

A puppet show tells the whole story about Von Fuchs and his life-long quest to create ubermenschen (in addition to dropping some juicy hints about Niles Caluder’s own past); Larry (who’s the featured character in the “flashback scenes” this time out) unsuccessfully tries to separate himself from the “Negative Spirit” by means of one of the compound’s crazy-ass mechanical devices; Cliff takes a good, hard look inside himself — and takes it out on Von Fuchs’ hive-mind (in the strictest sense of that term) Bavarian teen hit squad when he goes absolutely, and frighteningly, apeshit; a confrontation with Von Fuchs himself, kept alive in a steampunk technological monstrosity, reveals that Jane may not be who we think she is but, even more crucially, not who she thinks she is; and Steve — well, we haven’t seen the last of good ol’ Steve. Not by a long shot. And he’s absolutely ecstatic about that.

Veteran director Rachel Talalay definitely brings a cinematic look and feel to the proceedings here, but “showrunner” Jeremy Carver has established a tone that carries through in everything so far, one that is revealing itself to be among the most singular and unique in television in a good long while. It’s perfectly fair and entirely accurate to say that each episode of this show has been better than the one before it — and considering how strong it started right out of the gate, that’s very high praise indeed.  Bring on part four’s “Cult Patrol,” then — I’m absolutely hooked.

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Those who know far more about the craft (we’ll stick with that term given that it seldom rises to the level of “art’) of television writing tell me that second episodes are the trickiest wicket of all — at the starting gate you simply lay enough of your cards on the table to grab peoples’ attention, but not so many that they’ll walk away figuring they’ve got the whole show sussed out; with episodes three on out you’re essentially preaching to the choir; but episode two is the one that has to turn the casual viewers into die-hards, has to keep the butts in the seats. The “insta-fans” are already on board, but the “take it or leave it” crowd — the really fickle folks — well, they’re looking for a reason to take it. This is your one and only chance.

“Showrunner” Jeremy Carver turns the writing chores for this crucial installment of the DC Universe original series Doom Patrol over to the tandem of Neil Reynolds and Shoshana Sachi, and their script for “Donkey Patrol” (“Puppet Patrol” is next, so you can already see a pattern developing here) more than does its job — following, as most shows do these days, directly from the previous episode, the vortex created by Alan Tudyk’s narrator/villain Mr. Nobody has swallowed whole the town of Cloverton, Ohio, and with it Niles “The Chief” Caulder (the role that Timothy Dalton, I’m already convinced, was born to play) , but that farting donkey we “met” last time? He’s more than a gasbag, he’s a portal into whatever realm the Doom Patrol’s de facto “leader” has been whisked away to by this guy who hates his guts for reasons we’re still not privy to.

Diane Guerrero’ s”Crazy” Jane leaps in for an attempted rescue, but her visit proves to be a short one, the donkey hee-hawing her back out when her insanity proves to be too unpalatable even for a creature that’ll probably eat anything. This commotion’s not the only show in town, though, as alternating scenes in the early going introduce us to the team’s final member, Vic Stone/Cyborg (played by Joivan Wade), a Detroit-based hero aiming to work his way up to Justice League membership by busting small crimes such as ATM robberies. His roll-out proves to be a complete (I say that with zero hesitation) “win” for Carver, his writers, and director Dermott Downs, who alleviate all concerns about what the fuck a character best known for his turns with the aforementioned League and the Teen Titans is even doing in this show within a matter of minutes — hell, they even manage to tick every box on the “pedantic fan” checklist by directly addressing the continuity issues that arise from Vic appearing in this series this year, but in the Justice League movie last year.

Making perhaps an even more distinctive debut, though, is veteran actor Phil Ford in the role of his father, robotics genius/overbearing prick Silas Stone, a “second voice” in his son’s mind who simply won’t shut the fuck up and always has a “better” idea about what the kiddo should be doing with his extraordinary powers. There’s a tragedy at the heart of Cyborg’s origin story that no doubt has resulted in much unspoken tension between progenitor and progeny, but positioning Caulder as a secondary “father figure” in Vic’s life going back quite a few years not only helps ameliorate some of that, it also provides a perfectly logical explanation for why the half-robotic teen decides to hook up with the Doom Patrol in the first place.

In short, then, shoe-horning this character into this show probably shouldn’t have worked — but damn, it sure does.

“Shippers” — as well as regular people — will probably be gratified to see the bonds between Brendan Fraser/Riley Shanahan’s Cliff Steele and Jane deepen in this episode, fans of the freakish will get a kick out of April Bowlby’s Rita Farr being “squeezed” down into the donkey, and it’s a safe bet that everyone will find the “confronting their past demons” scenarios that she, Vic, and Matt Bomer/Matthew Zuk’s Larry Trainor are faced with on the “other side” of the most deliberately absurd dimensional doorway ever envisioned compelling in the extreme. Unlikely heroes emerge from this already-unlikely crew as they make their escape, but rest assured no one is left unscathed from their experiences in the (let’s just call it what it is) Twilight Zone.

Oh, and The Chief? Spoiler alert — by the time the end credits roll, he’s still stuck there.

Another good episode, then? Nope. Another great one, anchored by strong performances from one and all, well-paced scripting, smart and reasonably stylish direction, and a generous smattering of “Easter Eggs” (including, as you’d expect, any number from the Grant Morrison/Richard Case era of the comic — and one you probably would never expect featuring Curtis “Booger” Armstrong himself) for the observant and/or obsessive. It’s still too early to call this the best super-hero TV show of all time (even if most of the competition for that title is pretty weak), but it’s in no way too early to say that it’s well on track to be.

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Every comic-book reader has it : “their” book. The one that comes along at just the right time in your life and stays with you for the rest of your days. I’ve got a few, truth be told, but one of the big ones is Doom Patrol — specifically, Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol, that began with issue number 19 of the title’s second go-’round and lasted through number 63, a unique amalgamation of the existential, the conspiratorial, the emotive, and the quite-often indescribable that surely still stands as the most unusual “team book” ever set within the confines of a pre-existing superhero “universe.” Filled to the brim and beyond with Morrison’s patented brand of “high weirdness” but underscored with a palpable strain of sheer heart throughout, it had everything I was looking for in a comic as a teenager — when my interest in the traditional, by-the-numbers superhero narrative was waning, and my exploration of the work of  “alternative” cartoonists of the period (Chester Brown, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, etc.) was only just starting to take hold. Doom Patrol was a comic that hit a kind of “sweet spot” right between the two, and I definitely credit it for keeping my interest in the medium alive at precisely the point where it was threatening to wane.

And now, here we are, some three fucking decades later, and what would have been absolutely unthinkable in 1989 has come to pass : Doom Patrol is now a big-budget TV series, newly-launched on the DC Universe website/streaming service.

It’s not precisely “my” Doom Patrol, mind you, nor should it be : a straight adaptation of the Morrison/Case era would reek of the “been there, done that,” but one episode in (that episode bearing the standardized, and entirely unimaginative, title of “Pilot”), it’s clear that “showrunner” Jeremy Carver is cleaving to the temperament of that now-legendary run, while mixing in plenty from the original “Silver Age” version of the book by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani (credited as the team’s creators along with Bob Haney), a dash of Rachel Pollack’s post-Morrison/Case iteration (although, at least as yet, the elements of Pollack’s run that make their way onto the screen include nothing from the brief-but-incredible period when things went really, and wonderfully, far off the rails following the arrival of Ted McKeever as artist), and plenty that’s wholly unique and original in its own right. Something old, something new and all that —

The basic set-up is a fairly logical updating of the initial premise : genius (but quite mysterious) wheelchair-bound scientist Dr. Niles Caulder (played with something very much akin to absolute perfection by Timothy Dalton) accrues into his orbit a small group of super-beings whose abilities brand them more as rejects and freaks than “heroes,” outcasts with power to save the world but little desire to do so given they’ve been shunned from it. Their ranks are composed of former test pilot Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer), who is now horribly burned, completely bandaged, and sharing his body with a mysterious, and sentient, “negative” energy force; one-time Hollywood starlet Rita Farr (April Bowlby), who suffered a freak accident on a film location and is now a gelatinous, oozing mass of flesh that can only hold on to human form for brief periods of time; multiple personality disorder sufferer “Crazy” Jane (Diane Guerrero), who has 64 distinctive “selves,” each with a metahuman “gift” of its own; and long-since-believed-dead race car driver Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser), whose brain was actually saved by Caulder following a fiery collision and placed inside a robotic body. Future  episodes will apparently see the addition of stalwart DC character Cyborg, a fan-favorite from the pages of Teen Titans and Justice League, but since he has yet to hit the scene, we need not dwell on him too much — although I’m curious as to how they plan to integrate him into this far-less-traditional team and, more importantly, why they’re even bothering to do so. Guess we’ll take a “wait and see” approach there.

Based on evidence so far, though, I’m inclined to give Carver the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows what he’s doing, because his script for this first episode is essentially pitch-perfect : Cliff is out point of entry, and through him we get to know the other members of the cast, their “secret origins,” and their coping mechanisms : Larry’s into horticulture, Rita has her knitting, Jane (or a part of her at any rate) paints. Cliff, for his part, is building a miniature town, but when they all go into the nearest real one while “Chief” Caulder is away for a couple of days, the shit hits the fan and they end up needing to save the pleasant little village they’ve entered — from themselves.

Caulder warned them not to go, of course, but with the cat out of the bag, his makeshift “family” suddenly finds itself at very real risk from forces not out of their pasts, but his : specifically a mentally-and physically-fragmented being of immense power known as Mr. Morden/Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk, who doubles as this episode’s narrator), whose been looking for “The Chief” for a long time for reasons as yet unknown. Much as with the first “live-action” DC Universe series, Titans (where a slightly different version of our team made its first appearance in episode four), this  show looks to have a “road trip” as its core conceit, but first they all head back into town to undo the damage/face the music — only to find that Morden is a step ahead of them. As is a flatulent donkey. Things are about to go from strange to stranger.

Director Glen Winter does a superb job with the pacing here, balancing flashbacks with “present-day” action seamlessly, and his cast turn in uniformly strong performances that really sell viewers on the everyday banality of their absurd existences. These are people — and a robot — each in tremendous amounts of pain, and while they all seem to be able to “go through the motions” to a certain extent, that sense of anguish is ever-present just beneath the surface. This is an especially tricky thing to pull off in the cases of Larry Trainor and Cliff Steele, who are each voiced by the “big-name” actors whose names adorn the show’s credits, while their full-body costumes are inhabited by other actors (Matthew Zuk and Riley Shanahan, respectively) charged with the important task of expressing the physicality of the characters. It works — hell, it’s so seamless you could be forgiven for assuming Bomer and Fraser were on set/location and inside the suits — but never forget this kind of apparent “ease” always takes a hell of a lot of work, and the effort Winter puts in behind the camera definitely pays off in terms of delivering a unique, idiosyncratic, highly imaginative product in front of it.

Fans of standard superhero fare may find the altogether different tone, style, and even premise of Doom Patrol 180 degrees removed from where their interests lie, but they needn’t despair too much : the big and small screens offer no shortage of material in line with their populist sensibilities. For the rest of us, though, this show offers the exact same thing that Grant Morrison and Richard Case did 30 years ago, and Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani some 20 years before that : a superhero adventure series capable of rekindling our interest in the genre by doing something new and different, while simultaneously reminding us why we loved it in the first place.

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Damn, but it’s been awhile since we did one of these “International Weirdness” columns looking at strange cinema from other parts of the globe around these parts — and that’s no one’s fault but my own, for which I duly apologize. And I further apologize for the fact that it’s returning under less than auspicious circumstances, but what can I do? Last night, you see, I made the mistake of watching a 2011 Australian “found footage” horror flick on Amazon Prime (it’s probably also available on DVD, maybe even Blu-ray, not that you should care) titled — wait for it — Found Footage, and I’d literally be remiss in my civic duty not to warn you off from it in the strongest possible terms.

So — what’s it about? Well, it’s about a killer named Darius McKenzie (played by Matt Doran, who I understand is something of a “known quantity” on Australian television, and who also co-directed this steaming pile of kangaroo shit along with its screenwriter, Samuel Bartlett), who — kills people. Particularly women (bet you didn’t see that coming). And “films” it on his digital camcorder. And — that’s it.

No, seriously, that’s it. He’s busted by the end and this “footage” was purportedly “found” by the Australian Federal Police, so they’ve pretty much got him dead to rights. We know exactly how this flick wraps up, then — but we also know exactly what’s going to happen in it from the word “go.” And that’s its greatest sin apart from its blatant misogyny, atrocious acting, and cheesy-even-by-the-standards-of-this-sort-of-thing production values.

Honestly, I’m not at all sure why POV Horror — who have actually put out some films that I quite enjoy (although I fully admit to not being nearly as “down” on this whole subgenre as, apparently, most sensible folks are) — picked this thing up for international distribution. It literally has nothing going for it apart from some fairly realistic practical effects work and a short (64 minutes, if I’m not mistaken) run time. And when all you can say about a movie is “hey, at least it wasn’t longer,” well — that really isn’t saying much, is it?

I dearly hope that some of the actresses involved in this way-beyond-dubious project were fairly paid for their work, but somehow I doubt that. All the likes of Catherine Jeramus, Lisa Fineberg, and Alison Gallagher had to do, on a purely technical level, was show up, scream a lot, and pretend to be violently murdered, but seriously : there’s an indelible stain on one’s career that comes part and parcel with attachment to anything this undoubtedly sorry and they deserve appropriate compensation for that. Although, in fairness, perhaps the most appropriate compensation they could have asked for is simply having their names removed from it.

So, yeah, there’s just no sugar-coating it, under-selling it, or over-stating it : Found Footage really is just that bad. It’s one of those flicks where you honestly wonder why the hell anyone even bothered to make it, and none of the answers you can come up with are particularly pleasant. It won’t scare you, surprise you, or in any way even interest you. I’d call it worthless, but in truth it probably has negative value — I’ll certainly never get back the hour(-ish) of my life that I sunk into watching it, and for that I’m not so much disappointed as I am actively pissed off. I was robbed of time that would have been better spent watching my fingernails grow or the flagpole rust.

 

With the Oscar nominations having hit earlier the day of this writing, everybody’s talking about RomaA Star Is BornBohemian RhapsodyBlack Panther, etc. But there was a robbery committed in plain sight that seems to be going entirely unremarked-upon. I speak of the fact that writer/director Paul Schrader’s most remarkable film probably since Affliction, the criminally-underappreciated First Reformed, received precisely one nomination.

It’s in a category it could very well win, Best Original Screenplay — especially given that it won in same at the DGA Awards — but seriously : this is smart, nuanced, thought-provoking, intellectually and emotionally compelling filmmaking of the highest order, anchored by two incredibly strong central performances, pitch-perfect direction, and subtly impressive work by all and sundry behind the camera as the flick’s cinematography, musical score, editing, and production design are all in no way flashy, but essentially flawless.

So, yeah, I guess you could say I’m a little bit miffed.

For those unfamiliar with the plot particulars, Ethan Hawke exceeds any possible expectations in a stellar turn as the troubled Reverend Ernst Toller, who heads up a small upstate New York church that relies on tourism and the largesse of a neighboring “mega-church” for its survival. His house of worship is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and while he finds the celebrations commensurate with the “birthday” swiftly spinning out of his control, he’s also confronting his own crisis of faith engendered by the suicide of a disillusioned-with-existence parishoner named Michael (played by Philip Ettinger), a veteran who had fallen in with what’s derisively referred to as the “eco-terrorist” crowd after a stint in the military had run its course.

It wasn’t Michael who initially came to Rev. Toller for counseling, though, it was his pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, who, like Hawke, turns in career-defining work here), understandably conflicted with the idea of bringing new life into the world at the same that her husband seemed to be giving up on his. Mary and Toller develop a complex, multi-faceted and all-too-painfully-plausible relationship tinged with longing, desire, and a kind of mutual admiration, one shot through with with basic, elemental need for human connection with perhaps the only other person who can possibly come close to understanding their respective situations, but Toller is still struggling with the death of his son on the field of battle a good few years ago and the subsequent crumbling of his marriage, as well as his unresolved feelings for the musical director at the New Life “mega-church,” Esther (Victoria Hill). It’s a rich, thick stew of psychodrama that reveals just as much about its depth and character through the mannerisms, actions, even inaction of the principal players involved as it does by means of Schrader’s humanistic, melodrama-free dialogue.

The final ingredient, though, is certainly the most combustible and also the most tantalizing : Toller finds himself drawn toward the late Michael’s uncompromising ecological worldview, thanks in no small measure to the greedy machinations of local energy company magnate Ed Balq (Michale Gaston), who just so happens to be a major funder of New Life and a close friend of its lead pastor, Rev. Joel Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited here — appropriately, it seems to me — under his Christian name, Cedric Antonio Kyles). And guess where a whole bunch of the money for that big 250th anniversary extravaganza is coming from?

A bubbling cauldron is about to explode.

As the big day approaches, Toller finds himself going further and further off the rails, as well as deeper into the bottle, but a frightening medical diagnosis convinces him (perhaps ironically, perhaps not — it all depends on your point of view) that his path is set, his course clear, and the final act is a whirlwind of borderline-surreal storytelling and imagery that trusts viewers to make up their own minds rather than spelling things out in strict “okay, here’s what happened” terms. The ending itself has alienated some audiences and critics, it’s true, but for my money (not that I have a whole bunch), I wouldn’t have it any other way. Schrader has mapped out a trajectory for these characters and leaves it in our hands to determine exactly how they get to where they’re going. It all seems pretty damn clear to me, but I’ve read other reviews and essays on the film that posit different potential interpretations, and many make some very good points. So I’m just gonna leave it at “see it for yourself and make of it what you will,” since that seems the most honest approach to take.

And see it you definitely should. Whether on Blu-ray, DVD, or streaming on Amazon Prime, where it’s now available for members. You may not love First Reformed as unreservedly as I do, but you will be affected, and most likely impressed, by it. About the only thing I can compare it to in terms of its aesthetic sensibilities and understated-but-overwhelming emotional resonance is Ingmar Bergman’s finest work, and that’s high praise indeed coming from any quarter, I should think.

Oh, and if it doesn’t win at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, there damn well ought to be an investigation.