In Paul Schrader’s return to form, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a man full of self loathing and anger at the hypocrisies of the church. When his apathy and ethics are indirectly challenged by a pregnant climate change activist, he is compelled towards an act of protest and destruction.
Paul Schrader is still best known for being the scriptwriter for Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Fewer are aware of his prolific directing career, which includes films such as Mishima, Affliction, The Company of Strangers, Light Sleeper, Hardcore, and Blue Collar. Schrader’s screenplays have a recurring theme of a self-destructive protagonist seeking a violent catharsis to attain a sense of redemption. His films often concern spiritual and moral conflicts, and explore the rigours of Catholic faith contrasted with temptations of the flesh. This is perhaps epitomised in his screenplay for Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
First Reformed depicts all of Schrader’s obsessions and themes and the 71-year-old director has lost none of his rage, even though this film is superficially calmer and more spiritual than much of his opus.
Toller tends to a tiny flock in an under-attended church in New York state, known derisively as the ‘souvenir shop’ because makes more money from occasional tourist visits than from its tiny congregation. The building is about to commemorate its 250th anniversary with a re-consecration ceremony, bankrolled by the nearby Abundant Life megachurch with the support of its preacher Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). Toller is depressed, is an alcoholic and suffers from poor health.
One day, a new parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to visit her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). The couple are both climate change activists, and Michael is depressed about bringing their unborn child into the world. He is fearful of an imminent and inevitable man-made environmental disaster. Toller finds their conversation challenging and invigorating, as Michael’s rational despair challenges Toller’s own faith, wondering ‘would God forgive us?’ and recalling from Revelations that God will ‘destroy the destroyers of the Earth’.
As Toller’s health worsens, choir leader Ester (Victoria Hill) becomes concerned, although Toller tries to brush away her concern and affections. They had a brief relationship after he divorced his wife and he resents her. He increasingly lives on a diet of whisky and stomach medicine. The minister blames himself for his son’s death in Iraq and for the subsequent marriage break-up, believing that he is empty and incapable of love.
Toller develops a friendship with Mary, and tries to help when she discovers that Michael might be planning a despairingly violent suicide. However, his assistance and increasing sympathy for the couple’s environmental concerns is considered to be political by the church leaders. He begins to question the ethics of the church which seems particularly keen not to take a position.
First Reformed most resembles Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, the central film in his faith trilogy that questions whether God has abandoned us. There are many parallels. Both films have a despairing minister questioning his faith, and illness is a metaphor for spiritual malaise. In Winter Light, a woman asks the minister to help her husband who is depressed about the threat of nuclear destruction, much like Mary asks Toller to help Matthew who fears environmental destruction. In First Reformed, Toller is repulsed by Esther’s persistent concerns for his wellbeing, just as the minister in Winter Light is repelled by the local schoolteacher with whom he previously had a relationship.
In many ways, First Reformed could be seen as an update of Winter Light overlayed with Schrader’s own obsessions and concerns.
It also resembles the spirituality of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and it’s worth noting that before writing screenplays Schrader wrote a book called “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer”, which is due to be republished later this month. In some ways, he has come full circle with First Reformed.
Visually, the film is exceptionally carefully composed by cinematographer Alexander Dynan, each shot is beautifully framed. The palate is muted, blacks, whites and greys, echoing the moral ambiguities. Ethan Hawke gave a Q&A at the screening I attended and he said that Schrader was meticulously strict about how each scene was blocked, placing his actors to avoid over-the-shoulder shots and other common techniques. This gives the film a formalistic tone, which is only broken twice, both times at key moments when Toller experiences a human, physical connection with Mary. Then the camera pans and glides, the contrast emphasising the catharsis. The audience is left wondering whether these two moments occur only in Toller’s imagination.
Hawke brings a complexity to Toller’s character, and effectively expresses his internal spiritual turmoil. His acting is muted and expressive. Amanda Seyfried is good as the pregnant Mary who offers solace (is the religious symbolism too on-the-nose?).
First Reformed is a fascinating study of spiritual conflict, ethics and self-hatred, beautifully shot and finely acted. It’s features an intelligent, challenging script and finely crafted direction. Hawke said at the Q&A that Schrader was determined to make a serious film that addressed his concerns, rather than bow out on his more recent films such as the derided The Canyons or 2016’s enjoyable but trashy Dog Eat Dog. With First Reformed, he has made one of the best films of his career.
First Reformed will be released in the UK on 13th July 2018.Follow @davefilmblog