After more than 20 features, Paul Schrader has been reborn with First Reformed, an unhurried, furious, deeply agonized look at faith and skepticism that’s as reverent as it is blasphemous. Schrader works within a genre one could call citational cinema, with reference points and influences commingling to dictate aesthetics and ideas. Here, he uses architecture and environment to frame his subjects, recalling Yasujirō Ozu, from whom Schrader has often borrowed, and he taps into the stoical, ecclesiastical guilt of Ingmar Bergman. After the dyspeptic sleaze of The Canyons and the chaos of Dog Eat Dog, Schrader has returned to a more classical style of filmmaking, a style redolent of Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. First Reformed is his paean to slow cinema, a steadily simmering, unostentatious apogee collating the obsessions that have driven the filmmaker for 50 years.
First Reformed begins with a relic. The camera encroaches upon a looming, starkly white Dutch Reform Church in upstate New York. Inside is Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a middle-aged ex-military chaplain, a longtime servant of God, now in charge of the historic and antiquated First Reformed, which is more tourist attraction than functioning place of worship. The church’s gift shop sells one-size-fits-all baseball caps, its attendance is miniscule, and its organ doesn’t work—a metaphor, perhaps, for Toller’s chastity, and for the desire that the reverend tries so hard to expunge and ignore.
Toller’s son, cajoled into enlisting in the armed services by his father, died in the Iraq War, and Toller’s relationship with his faith has been tumultuous and unstable since. The local congregation has emigrated to the town’s megachurch, Abundant Life, replete with state-of-the-art big-screen televisions and stadium seating and lead by the galvanizing potentate Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). Toller seems to be kept on a short leash by Jeffers, who’s overseeing First Reformed’s 250th anniversary re-consecration celebration, funded (and influenced) by the corrupt and vehement corporate CEO Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a denier of climate change whose company, we learn, is one of the world’s worst environmental offenders.
Toller, his face etched with wrinkles and his liver battered by prodigious alcohol consumption, is a glorified tour guide. His life lacks fulfillment. He decides to keep a journal for one year, cataloging his thoughts, anxieties, and diurnal toils, burning the book when he’s finished. When he isn’t selling souvenirs, he’s drinking, writing, contemplating the foibles of his existence. Though he keeps up appearances, he’s not well: He pisses blood, and when he brushes his teeth, brown-red spit coats his teeth as his face contorts into a grimace, giving him a monstrous, moribund appearance. He’s ravaged from toxins and dying slowly, treating his body the way humans treat the Earth.
One day, the devout and pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him, concerned about her husband Michael’s (Philip Ettinger) recent mental state and his swelling abhorrence for humanity. Toller finds renewed purpose in Mary and Michael, a couple in need of his help. (In a sense, a votary needs his flock to be in pain, to need him; a pastor who’s not needed, like Toller, will succumb to man’s innate desire for self-destruction.) Michael is a skeptic and a fanatical environmentalist. The ruination of the planet has been eating away at him, and he doesn’t want to bring a child into a world he loathes. Toller, who has, by the nature of his vocation, answered all of Michael’s queries, now finds himself unsure, and now he begins to ask questions himself.
When Toller finds Michael’s body, its head obliterated by a shotgun, his reaction isn’t one of revulsion or sorrow, but calm curiosity. He becomes inveigled by Michael’s environmentalist obsessions. It’s as if the dead man has been reborn within Toller, as if Toller has found a new, invigorated faith, a fervid and politicized one. Suicide is, for strict Augustine Christians, a sin, unforgivable as the dead cannot confess, unless one is labeled a martyr, like Samson. Yet Toller begins to see in death the possibility for new life.
First Reformed’s intellectualized, detached, and emotionally reticent notion of suicide recalls Bresson’s The Devil, Probably. Bresson, along with Ozu and Dreyer, formed a trinity at the heart of Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film, and the filmmaker has faithfully returned to them again and again, channeling them in most of his directorial efforts, working within the so-called “Tarkovsky Ring” (films made within this ring will find commercial distribution, films like those of Bresson and Roberto Rossellini, while films outside of this ring are destined for museum and festival existences). Schrader was raised in an austerely Calvinist home, but at the age of 17 he converted to cinema. First Reformed is about Schrader’s film theories, about the transcendent possibilities of the medium, as much as it is about religion.
The film is, even by Schrader’s standards, a bleak endeavor, concerned with the durability of spirituality, its susceptibility to corruption and radicalism, and its place in modern American life: with the slow decay of the planet, as well as with pain, penance, and the validity of suicide and murder. Invidious, at times startlingly beautiful, and at others startlingly ugly, it encapsulates Schrader’s cinematic philosophies, the testament of a man who worships film. It’s a churlish and controlled film, suffused with dolor yet agleam with the prospect of hope, each assiduous and apoplectic composition as neat and orderly as the garments Toller adjusts during his morning routine.
Shot by Alexander Dynan, First Reformed has a mostly familiar, competent aesthetic, with subjects and their surroundings structured in a geometric style reminiscent, again, of Ozu. The repetition of shots—what film theorist David Bordwell refers to as “planimetric shots,” faces isolated in the frame, buildings filmed head-on, the camera unmoving and observant—insinuate a life of tedium, devoid of variety. There’s little ambiguity in the deep focus. The camera isn’t liberated. But as Toller’s faith grows increasingly strained, his revelations more and more exceptional, the shots go aslant, the camera moving more. The final shot, twirling oneirically, the camera jubilant as it circles around Toller and Mary in bloody embracement, feels torn from a Brian De Palma film, out of place with the phlegmatic style of Schrader’s. It suggests a dream, an Empyrean awakening. It brings to mind a bible quote, from Revelation 17:6: “And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marveled greatly.”
First Reformed feels like a culmination of and response to Schrader’s career. It harks back to Martin Scorsese’s New York nightmare Taxi Driver by using a journal as a narrative device. Both films use a laconic, unexpurgated voiceover to elucidate on the inner turmoil of a man whose well-being is eroding and whose disdain for the people around him grows with each passing day and toward a violent epiphany. Schrader has said that he knows his obituaries will read, “Writer of Taxi Driver,” despite his own idiosyncratic career as a filmmaker. With First Reformed, he seems to be rewriting his own legacy, revisiting the infatuations and compulsions that inspired the Scorsese film.
Travis Bickle wants to wash from the streets the decay he perceives in modern life. He’s a man who anoints himself an angel of death, come to smite New York City’s miscreants. The backseat of his cab is, at the end of each night, doused in blood and cum, the way the faithful are awash in the blood of the lamb. In Travis one finds the seeds of Schrader’s obsessions: penitence, sin, tortured veterans, working-class malaise, men with complicated relationships with sex. Like Travis, Toller sees grotesqueries and unforgivable misdeeds, and his notion of atonement becomes more extreme. He turns away the longing of his ex-wife, Esther (Victoria Hill), who leads the megachurch’s choir and secretly pines, in pain, for Mary. His faith, while tested, never corrodes; it becomes more steadfast, more Old Testament-like. Misery begets penance, suffering ameliorating the sins of humanity. Toller rejoices in his suffering, and through him Schrader has found his faith in cinema renewed.