Paul Schrader likes his men falling apart. The things that make them men (to themselves) are the very things that burst their sanity at the seams, the very things that may be at the root of their self-destruction. His “man in a room” films—like Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, The Walker and, now, First Reformed —are studies in masculinity unraveling. As he studies the follies of manhood, or what the protagonists conceive of as manhood, Schrader’s approach to queered masculinity can even be found in works like Auto Focus and in his biopic on renowned writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
First Reformed, though, takes his preoccupation—with placing a man in a room and forcing that man to deal with his body and with his soul and with his body and soul in a world that’s falling apart—to its most logical end. With some of the most severe mise-en-scene in his career, Schrader places his military-vet-turned-pastor, Father Toller (Ethan Hawke), in a room as he tries to reconcile with his despair. That room, to Schrader, is where profane and divine meet, where they battle, both internally and externally. In Schrader movies, the room is as much a representation of the body and mind as the men themselves. Toller’s room is as bare as Toller wishes his soul to be.
In 1980’s American Gigolo, Richard Gere’s high-priced escort Julian knows what he’s good at, and proud of it, too. His clients are predominantly older women, women whose husbands, in his understanding, have forgotten them, or whose desires and need for pleasure have been discarded. His ability to satisfy them—he calls this “a challenge” he is up to—gives him fulfillment, he implication of meaning in his life. That life, otherwise, is organized; there is a routine to his actions. His home is modern, defined by the intentional affectation of someone putting on appearances. That’s what he does for a living: He puts on appearances. Julian’s image aspires to be the most charming and eligible man, even when he’s playing naïve, as he does with one client. He feigns stupidity, though when he does so as a simple chauffeur, he exudes the kind of sex appeal that’s only natural because it’s so practiced. He works out, sculpts himself. When he places his clothes on the bed (they’re Armani), he crafts the best version of himself to sell to others.
Julian has standards when it comes to tricks: no kink, no fag stuff. But those standards, and the secrets he’s kept so well for the women that have employed him, fall apart when he becomes embroiled in a murder case, the victim being one of his tricks. As he loses all sense of himself and the control he once thought he had over his world, the meticulously created artifice of his life dissolves rapidly. Though Julian is (ostensibly) heterosexual, American Gigolo is a queer film by virtue of its form. Schrader imbues the film with queer aesthetics, its Californian, neon-painted fakeness, its kitschy set design (the loudest furniture juxtaposed against the most austere symmetry) and its little does of Blondie, “Call Me” blaring at the beginning of the film. One of his pimps, Leon (Bill Duke) is gay and black, and the affair he carries on with Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a well-known politician, feels like a stiff fantasy. Masculinity is a prison, the film almost seems to suggest, as the masculine self Jules so dutifully crafted begins to sour and fall apart. His world sinks, and he’s left with almost no one.
Schrader is as nihilistic about gay men as he is about straight ones, for, in his 2007 film The Walker, Woody Harrelson plays Carter Page III, whose connections to any sense of intimacy are only via the socially arranged. Carter is a “walker,” a man hired to escort older, wealthy, connected women at formal gatherings. He’s a woman’s gay man—so much passes through his ears and falls out on his lips, ready to spill the hottest tea over a game of canasta. Every external detail of Carter’s life, too, is dictated by artifice and performance, a superficiality which is determined in its agreeability and warmth. He has a sharply designed apartment, handpicked clothing and the best toupee in town. He is also, like Julian, good at his job, one of the best paid confidants in DC. That is the meaning to his life; that and escaping the shadow of his father, a politician.
Also caught in the mix of a murder, Carter’s life falls apart, his distress compounded by disquiet because Carter’s gayness is an open secret: known but never spoken about. In Tony Kushner’s landmark play Angels in America, Roy Cohn says this about homosexuals: “They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows.” He could have been describing Carter: There’s almost nothing inside of him, and it’s this that he must confront in the room. There is no pleasure. There is no mind. There is barely a body. Existing so long to serve others as arm candy for important, but ultimately inconsequential parties in the nation’s capital, there’s almost nothing left of Carter.
The context is somewhat different for Schrader’s biopic of Yukio Mishima, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapter. At once one of Japan’s most celebrated artists and also the subject of much scrutiny for the ways in which his art transgressed social mores, Mishima in Schrader’s lens leads the life of an artist reconciling with what being means: being an artist, and simply being—physically, spiritually, mentally. As the film interrogates, Mishima’s great struggle was to find harmony with art and the self, with the body and the soul, making him the perfect fodder for Schrader’s interests. “The body precedes words,” Mishima narrates, as his fiction comes to life via adaptations of scenes from works like The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses.
But the contexts of Mishima’s life, and the core issues which rumble around his imaginative head, are not so dramatically different than those of Julian or Carter: These characters are obligated and expected to manifest masculinity in particular ways, even in Carter’s fey, disarming socialite and unthreatening version of gayness. For Mishima, queerness transgresses the social norms of masculinity; when he looks at a painting of St. Sebastiane, the suggestion of nudity, the arrows pointing out from his body and the pulsating eroticism stirs something in Mishima that he knows is wrong. “I trembled with joy. My loins swelled. […] My need to transform reality was an urgent necessity as important as three meals a day or sleep,” he says. Reality is a prison, mortality is coiled around our bodies, and to seek pleasure is to try to break free of the norms that bind us.
Of the three aforementioned characters, Mishima is the most self-aware, the least “empty,” but the most anxious about the possibility of emptiness inside of him. He is most cognizant of the restrictions and limitedness within his society, of the social practices by which he must abide and of the corporeality of his own body. He most knows what does or does not make him a man in this society, aware of the material advantages and disadvantages, of the physical construction of his masculinity and how he queers it. He too is acutely attentive to the eroticism of narcissism, transforming his body, shaping it and cultivating it so that he may be the ideal specimen in Japan. As he evolves into an extreme traditionalist, disavowing materiality and vying for the preservation of Japan as an empire, he continues to wrestle with the immaculate marriage of mind, body, spirit and art. He ultimately commits public seppuku.
The men in Paul Schrader’s films are undone by the feeble attempts to preserve restrictive ideals of masculinity: One event sets off a chain reaction, a domino effect for the undoing of the self. The curated acts, the sculpting, that Julian, Carter and Mishima commit themselves to are flimsy, revealing that, once one peels back each layer of “manhood,” inside is something vacant, an abyss of loneliness and anxiety. To varying degrees, Schrader’s films are riffs on film noir and horror, one man forced to negotiate the world after something has changed his perception, ultimately confronting something that has been unknown to him. In these films, the most unknown for Schrader’s men is the self.