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Oh, Canada Review: Schrader’s Cannes confession

Uma Thurman and Richard Gere talk to someone in front of a red wall in the Paul Schrader film Oh, Canada

Paul Schrader’s Oh, Canada is a critical but moving account of confession in the face of one’s own mortality.

Director: Paul Schrader
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 91′
Cannes Premiere: May 17, 2024
Release Date: TBA

Paul Schrader has spent much of his career being angry. The state of the world perplexes him, and his and God’s lonely men that inhabit his oeuvre have given a voice to his concerns. Now, as his eighth decade approaches its end, Schrader finds a need to change his tune.

If the protagonist of Oh, Canada is an avatar of the writer/director, then his anger has curdled into sickness and loneliness. This is no bad thing. The bracing honesty of Oh, Canada is refreshing, not an adjective you expect to use for work from a 78-year-old filmmaker. It refreshes because the film is so open about its main character being a terrible person. Leonard Fife isn’t a factory worker, a priest or a gardener. He is defined by being the one thing every one of Schrader’s leading men sought to prove he isn’t: a coward.

For his 25th feature as director (if you include Dark, his recut of studio botch job Dying Of The Light), Schrader returns to the work of the late Russell Banks (to whom Oh, Canada is dedicated) after his successful adaptation of Affliction. Taken from Banks’ novel ‘Foregone’, Oh, Canada is framed as a portrait of a conscientious objector but blossoms into something much more critical and complicated. The film opens with a documentary crew making preparations for their subject to be interviewed. That subject is Fife (Richard Gere), a man who fled the U.S. for Montréal, Canada to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. A documentarian himself, Fife has arranged this interview as a final confession as he succumbs to cancer.

The setup is a talking head confessional in the vein of Errol Morris, with Michael Imperioli’s director seeking some kind of smoking gun in his former mentor’s remembrances. With wife Emma (Uma Thurman) watching on, Fife begins a journey down a road that he didn’t anticipate, but one which he clearly needs to walk. Even before we get to the meat of the story, the illnesses and griefs that haunt Schrader himself are evoked. Neither Schrader nor Fife can get through an interview without coughing and spluttering, and it is both galvanizing and moving to see him acknowledge his own situation. It defines Oh, Canada as an honest and bracing picture.

That same honesty is what shifts Oh, Canada from a potential lionising anti-war statement to a complex portrait of cowardice. Whether in a fit of honesty or a medicated lapse in his judugement, Fife begins to explain that the war was never his only reason to flee.

Uma Thurman looks at someone with teary eyes in the Paul Schrader film Oh, Canada
Uma Thurman in Oh, Canada (WME Independent / Cannes Film Festival)

Flashing back to his early ‘20s, we see the young Fife (Jacob Elordi) preparing for a new teaching job, a possible alternative job offer from his in-laws, and the impending birth of his second child with his wife (Kristine Froseth). This plays like a biopic (and the documentary framing device sells that feeling), but the twists the film subsequently takes could never be included in such a picture. Fife is too dark and self-interested to get a polished filmed memoir of his own.

Oh, Canada covers a lot of heartbreak over its impressively brief runtime. Families break, lives are upended, and Schrader makes it abundantly clear that it’s all Fife’s fault. In its criticisms of its protagonist, from his fear and abandonment of his responsibilities, to his self-importance, Oh, Canada could easily be interpreted as an act of cinematic self-flagellation on Schrader’s part. Like an indulgent director might do, Gere replaces Elordi in some scenes set in the past, like he’s manipulating his own story in moments of ego. Yet, the film never feels indulgent.

Schrader’s direction here is the most exciting it’s been in years, switching between film stocks and lighting schemes with supreme confidence. This is also a testament to DoP Andrew Wonder, excelling on the biggest project of his career so far. Schrader also commissions a raft of beautiful songs from Matthew Houck (better known as Phosphorescent), plus a cover of the Canadian national anthem that invites apt comparisons to Neil Young.

The cast is superb. Gere is shorn of vanity and his grey locks in a performance of bitter vulnerability, while the height difference between him and Elordi never gets in the way of them working in tandem to evoke Fife’s fractured mindset. Meanwhile, Thurman quietly impresses as the wife who realizes she never knew all she ought to. The occasional unconvincing moment of cast members playing younger or older doesn’t undermine proceedings, as Schrader keeps the audience on its toes with his energetic but precise direction and sensitive script, one of his best this century. While it isn’t necessarily his last film, Oh, Canada feels like Schrader preparing to make peace with his Maker and himself. As an act of atonement, Oh, Canada is cathartic, contemplative, and deeply heartfelt.

Oh, Canada premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2024. Read our list of 20 films to watch at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival!

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