‘Oh, Canada’ Review: Paul Schrader’s Rueful Ode to Death and Regret Is as Confused as Its Protagonist

“How can so much suffering have no meaning?”

That’s a question posed by decorated documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife in Paul Schrader’s meandering ode to death, dying, aging, and regret, “Oh, Canada.” It’s inevitably one also felt by audiences who will be left bewildered by the Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s most experimental and alienating work in some time, which loses itself in the process.

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With “Oh, Canada,” Schrader splices timelines, color palettes, and aspect ratios to tell Fife’s (Richard Gere, who broke out in Schrader’s zeitgeisty “American Gigolo,” and then also Jacob Elordi) story as a now-revered nonfiction movie-maker who fled the United States in the late 1960s for Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Schrader is a gifted filmmaker who has given us so much more than “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” the only movies audiences of late seem to remember him by. He’s not unfamiliar with unpacking a great and morally complicated artist’s work in wildly subversive terms — see “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” from 1985. And in fact, who greater to trust to do so than a director who has made self-reflection, including in stories about lonely men with a pen in a room and nothing left to live for, his primary pursuit?

It’s unfortunate that “Oh, Canada” emerges as disjointed and confused as its lead, Leonard Fife, who’s submitting himself to a career-spanning interview conducted by past film students from his late-career teaching days, including director Malcolm (Michael Imperioli). Leonard is suffering from a mentally addled state due to medications to palliate the “not good kind of cancer” he’s riddled with. Call it a medically induced dementia as he slips from moments of sharp clarity to complete disorientation as to why he’s here at all. He’s agreed to exhume his life, now clearly nearing its end, for a film crew, whom his wife Emma (Uma Thurman) feels might be exploiting him while encouraging the interview nonetheless. “He confabulates like he’s dreaming,” she tells Malcolm and his dazed assistant Sloan (Penelope Mitchell). “It’s wrong to be doing this.” And yet Emma, whom Leonard met after running to Canada, abets the project anyway. Leonard is, after all, an “emblem of political filmmaking,” Malcolm reminds.

Schrader adapts the 2021 novel “Foregone” by Russell Banks into his own specific creation, and one that leaves viewers dizzied and lost by the chopped-up melancholy of it all. The casting of Jacob Elordi as a younger version of Gere — two people who look absolutely nothing alike — suggests the director doesn’t care about such anachronisms. And he may be onto something smart, prioritizing performance and presence over physical resemblance, but it’s hard to get past how these two have no physical relation to one another. Streams of information flow into and over each other in an elegy about who was who, and when, and why. The two actors, while capable on their own, are seemingly operating in two different films.

That’s not to say both actors aren’t solid, and ably, eagerly following Schrader into a time warp of confusion that finds “Oh, Canada” careening from past to present, often putting the present-day actors into the past-day roles. But the film is at times as out of touch with reality as its characters. At one point, Thurman, as Emma, rushes out of the room where the documentary is being filmed and back into it to announce, “I had to answer a text on my phone right away.” Who says that? Meanwhile, Imperioli’s Malcolm seems shocked when Leonard shares a story about smoking on a plane. That was 1968, a time when cigarettes on a plane were part of the casual flow of everyday social interaction.

'Oh, Canada'
‘Oh, Canada’ Cannes

Gere is in competent form as an artist trying to keep his unwell mind in check in real time, reaming off memories of abandoning women and the children they made together in a sort of blank-eyed, frustrated haze. And the plangent reflections on Leonard’s early life as a want-to-be-writer before he unexpectedly became a documentary filmmaker, like when he recalls being “like any self-absorbed 20-something who wants to be regarded more as a writer than to write,” hit hard in their way. Cinematographer Andrew Wonder seems game to trail Schrader’s lead across almost “I’m Not There” levels of disparate timelines and looks charting Leonard’s back-then and here-now bending together. The audience just may be less so on their wavelength.

The film’s back-and-forth, in-and-out, and all-over-the-place structure doesn’t benefit Elordi’s performance as a much different man than the Leonard we know today, but one as hardened from the get-go. Often, Schrader casts Gere as the younger version of Leonard in scenes where Elordi would’ve been better suited, perhaps to put us in the mind of someone whose memories are just as scrambled as the life’s work he’s trying to recount. Thurman, meanwhile, is left stranded, pitching her particular turn all over the place. It feels like the Oscar-nominated actress doesn’t know who or where she is most of the time, and hasn’t here found the filmmaker to match her singularly wily charisma. “Without her, I am nothing,” the older Leonard, played by Gere, tells the documentarians surrounding him. The film never makes the argument that their relationship was somehow life-affirming, other than a flashback scene where Thurman, playing a much-younger hippie adjacent version of Emma, gives Elordi’s Leonard a seemingly soul-shaking handjob.

Women come and go from the younger Leonard’s life as frequently as the older version’s memory of them seems to flit. The film’s most trenchant scenes involve Gere in states of repose or regret or nostalgia, especially when psychically disarrayed in a chair with a camera facing toward him, wondering what, for example, desire smells like. “Especially to a young woman,” he thinks in voiceover as Sloan adjusts his shirt. “Can she pick up the odor of the medications… or the smell of dried feces on my ass?”

Schrader is in a plaintive state of rumination here. The vaguely bluesy folk songs courtesy of A.G. Cook put us in a place of longing from frame one. There is a dusted-over, what-might-have-been feeling to the whole idea of Leonard looking back on his life for an audience who, much like Leonard himself, won’t know who he is by the time he’s over and done. But Schrader over-complicates things in rejecting the spareness of his previous efforts, even teetering into a saccharine range previously unheard of for the screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Hardcore.” Maybe that’s forgivable for an artist obviously reflecting on his own life and work, and yet it’s through a character he can’t seem to penetrate amid all cinematic trickery available. And its cinematic trickery Schrader already mastered before.

Grade: C

“Oh, Canada” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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