First ReformedReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 08/28/18 15:59:47
“There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” – Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver,' written by Paul SchraderFirst Reformed is Paul Schrader’s twenty-first film as a director, and probably his best. It seems to sum up a lot of things Schrader believes in, artistically and spiritually. It is quiet and modest; it adopts the boxy “Academy format” of 1.37:1, in which most films were shot before the widescreen revolution of the 1950s, and which is seldom if ever employed today, even on television. First Reformed has been released the same year as the re-issue of Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film, which meditated on the cinema of Robert Bresson, Yasajiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer, and the two Schrader works can stand alongside each other, or atop each other, as two characters in the film do in a fantasy sequence — at least I think it’s a fantasy sequence. Past a certain point the distinction becomes unhelpful, and when Schrader draws the final curtain we are left with doubt regarding the image immediately preceding the darkness. We are left, much like the film’s protagonist, balanced between despair and hope.
Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) presides over the sparse congregation of the First Reformed Church in the drab, snowy, fictional town of Snowbridge in eastern New York. Toller was once a military chaplain, married with a son, but he lost his son and then his marriage, and now he is here, drinking too much in his lonely, barren rooms (which make Travis Bickle’s apartment look like a Chuck E. Cheese). He coughs; his stomach hurts; at one point he pours Pepto-Bismol into his whiskey, and Schrader’s camera hovers above the slimy, blobby mix the way Martin Scorsese’s camera detained itself over a glass seething with Alka-Seltzer in Taxi Driver. Toller resists any attempts to bring him into the family of man; he would much rather brood in solitude and wrestle with God in his journal.
Decades of moviegoing have conditioned us to expect Toller to respond to a calling raised by the plot, and that happens, sort of. A parishioner, the tremulous, pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), approaches Toller and asks him to advise her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is concerned about the environment, to the point of being arrested at a protest in Canada. He wants Mary to have an abortion, since bringing a child into a disintegrating world seems to him like selfish folly. First Reformed is not about what anyone thinks or feels about abortion, though. Mary discovers a suicide vest in the garage, and soon after, Toller discovers Michael’s body in a park, head shattered by a self-inflicted shotgun blast. The plot, as they say, thickens; Toller is shown to absorb the dead man’s fear and loathing about the environment and its despoilers (including the corporation that bankrolls Abundant Life, the megachurch that oversees Toller’s church).
Yet I don’t get the sense that the movie becomes about the environment, either, or that Toller becomes fixated on it. He is drawn, I think, to the kind of passion that would resolve itself by a self-extinguishing gesture — something Toller has lacked until now, a vital and bleeding connection to Christ. He is ill and alcoholic and mad with loneliness and despair. He says that a blend of despair and hope produces life, but hope is what he has been missing. So he lunges for someone else’s hope, the hope that one’s life and death will matter, make a difference. In essence it’s the same impulse that drives Travis Bickle to blast through anonymity (to paraphrase Pauline Kael). I have always felt that Travis’ liberation of the teen prostitute Iris was incidental to his real mission, to announce himself to an indifferent world. Same dynamic here. Does Toller really love Christ, or is he just hiding inside the bleak asceticism the religious lifestyle makes possible?
First Reformed has a lot of moving parts (and nods to other directors besides Schrader’s triumvirate, the big one being Ingmar Bergman and his Winter Light), but its emotional/spiritual throughline is plain and simple. Schrader pulls career-best performances out of Hawke, Seyfried, even Cedric the Entertainer (billed here as Cedric Kyles), creating quiet, intense moments the actors can share inside the pinched square of the frame. It’s a rigorous, unadorned film except for two bits between the pastor and the pregnant woman that are sure to be debated as long as there are films and debaters. It’s at these points that Schrader seems to acknowledge the movie-ish tradition he’s a part of, the foundation from which artists can then leap free via surrealism or symbol.As for the other tradition studied here, the Dutch Reformed Church has been home to various people of note over the years, including two presidents, Evel Knievel, and Fred and Mary Trump.
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