The cinema of Paul Schrader has always felt like a confessional, all those dark rooms and troubled men, the registered Swiftie’s own tortured poets department. The confessional edges closer to the form in his latest film Oh, Canada, an august adaptation of Russell Banks’ 2021 novel Foregone that tells of a famous documentary filmmaker at the end of his days, divulging secrets of his past to an interviewer’s head-on camera. Might the old Calvinist be looking for a little more absolution? When Banks, a friend since the director’s adaptation of Affliction, died in 2023, Schrader was coming to the tail end of his own series of health scares––these included everything from hospitalizations for long COVID to the retina detaching from his right eye during the filming of Master Gardener. “If I’m going to make a film about death,” he recently admitted thinking to himself at the time, “I’d better hurry up.”

Oh, Canada is very much that. It’s also the first time the director has worked with Richard Gere since the mutually beneficial success of American Gigolo 44 years––a moving and poignant choice given the wildly diverging paths they have been over that time. The actor was 31 when Gigolo came out, about to be thrust to the top of the A-list. Never comfortable in the sunnier parts of Hollywood, Schrader would use the film’s success to plug away for as long as he could with his own idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking. That their paths have convened again here, with Schrader rejuvenated (loving life as the elder statesman of the New York scene) and Gere without a solid role in years, is itself a poignant narrative. That they’ve done so on a story about a filmmaker reassessing his own legacy is even more compelling.

The actor, it’s pleasing to report, is phenomenal as Leonard Fife, a celebrated political documentarian who dodged the draft in 1968, fleeing to Canada and eventually marrying one of his students, Emma (Uma Thurman). The story is structured around a final interview Leonard has agreed to give to two of his old students, the director Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) and his producer and partner Diana (Victoria Hill)––in one of a few light jibes at his peers, Leonard blithely refers to Malcolm as the “Canadian Ken Burns.” It’s set up for Leonard to be a victory lap but, much to the discomfort of Emma (whom Leonard requests to sit as his witness), the director treats it as an opportunity to confess: first about the women and child he abandoned as a younger man and, later on, his lingering guilt for not serving in Vietnam. The film cuts back and forward as an increasingly delusional Leonard attempts to piece together the shards of his own memories (he’s played in flashback by Jacob Elordi and occasionally by Gere himself) and as those faculties betray him, the narrative grows increasingly opaque––occasionally to the point of being tricky to follow and a touch unsatisfying.

Though a rare adaptation in the director’s recent oeuvre, not to mention a work that pays homage to a recently passed friend, to call Oh, Canada a personal film would still be stating the obvious––even by the director’s meditative standards, this one cuts close to the bone. Schrader’s presence feels particularly notable in Leonard’s inner monologue, and not least in the bracingly candid way the character thinks about Malcolm’s young assistant. (Amongst other things, he wonders, as she attaches his mic, about how his heavily medicated body must smell.) Added to Schrader’s luck at having missed out on the draft due to medical reasons, it doesn’t take a stretch to surmise he imagines seeing much of himself in Leonard’s chair. What a drag it is getting old.

Not that many reading this will need any convincing, but that brutal honesty about the indignities of old age is one of the main reasons to see Oh, Canada. The other is Richard Gere, who gives what might be the most psychologically bleak and demanding performance of his career. Largely restricted to a close-up shot (Malcolm bases his rig, he says, on Errol Morris’ Interrotron), Gere brings just the right amount of barbed, embittered indignation to Leonard’s dying light. Away from all the morbid introspection, however, might the director actually be enjoying himself here? Embracing a rare opportunity to work in a period setting, the film’s flashbacks are tastefully evoked, both in black-and-white and in a very Asteroid City-esque color palette of orange and teal. We get to see Elordi smoking on a plane. There are some nice vintage cars. There is a conversation in a restaurant with blood-red walls. He said he wanted to make a film about death; there is plenty of life in there, still.

Oh, Canada premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

Grade: B

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