Everything Paul Schrader has done throughout his career has led him to First Reformed, potentially the finest entry in what my friend and former Slant contributor Jeremiah Kipp refers to as the writer-director’s “men in rooms” films. These include 1980’s American Gigolo, 1992’s Light Sleeper, and 2007’s The Walker, all woozy character studies of not-quite-alpha males drifting through impeccably maintained, utterly empty lives that are summarily upended. The spaces these men inhabit seem an extension of their preplanned existences. Look at the way, for example, Richard Gere’s high-end sex worker, Julian Kaye, in American Gigolo organizes his California apartment as if it were a sun-dappled monk’s cell, with Armani suits as his chaplain’s wardrobe and a luxury-linened bed as his altar.
Raised a strict Dutch Calvinist and best known as the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—another portrait of a bristling lone wolf—Schrader inevitably got around to including a priest in this unofficial series of films. First Reformed’s Father Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is certainly one of his most indelible creations. He’s the head cleric at a sparsely attended tourist church in present-day upstate New York, and not-so-coincidentally shares his name with a left-wing German modernist playwright who Joseph Goebbels once deemed, during the rise of Nazism, “political enemy number one.” Toller is reeling, we soon discover, from the breakup of his marriage and the death of his son, who he convinced to enlist in one of America’s wars overseas. There’s plenty of soul-sapping guilt, but it’s something Toller buries in disciplined routine and a fair drinking habit, all while ignoring the cough and bloody urine stream that indicates something else is amiss internally.
At the start of First Reformed, Toller begins a diary that, as he says in voiceover, he’ll keep for one year, noting down all his thoughts in it until, 365 days hence, he’ll burn the book to ash. So the threat of violence is present from the beginning of the film. But even if Toller considers a fiery outcome inevitable, he’ll do everything in his power to defer it—to use his calling as a counterbalance to the all-consuming “despair” and “blackness,” as he defines it for a parishioner, that’s mankind’s lot to endure.
That parishioner is a forlorn environmentalist named Michael (Philip Ettinger) who can’t reconcile the inevitability of destructive climate change with the pregnancy of his wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). In a lengthy, gripping early scene in the film, Toller and Michael have a spirited debate about the responsibility of bringing a child into a likely doomed world. As the discussion proceeds, the moral high ground becomes increasingly muddied. No one man is entirely right or wrong, though Schrader and his cinematographer, Alexander Dynan, shooting in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, present their discourse with a strict visual clarity that belies the blurred lines beneath.
The cinematic touchstone here and elsewhere—one of several—is the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, one-third of the influential filmmaking trio examined by Schrader in his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) book-length study titled Transcendental Style in Film. The two other directors explored in that tome were France’s Robert Bresson and Japan’s Yasujirō Ozu, both of whom Schrader has also borrowed from time and again. (American Gigolo’s transcendent final scenes are a near-total copy of the finale of Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket.)
In First Reformed, Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu form a kind of holy trinity: The narrated journal conceit and prevalent environmental themes are clear lifts from 1951’s Diary of a Country Priest and 1977’s The Devil, Probably, while there’s a gleefully goofy mounted bicycle shot that’s pure Ozu. And Dreyer’s commanding, multifaceted visual sense, especially in 1964’s talk-heavy Gertrud, hangs over even the simplest of the film’s conversation scenes. But this isn’t a mere compendium of Schrader’s influences (though it does have the aura, like David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks: The Return, of a career summation). Like many of his fellow movie brats (Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg) at their best, Schrader references his forbears as way of distilling and crystallizing his own ideas and obsessions. What results here is something entirely, thrillingly new, and very much of the now.
The heart of the film is Toller’s own struggle against the forces of global change that Michael identifies in their long talk. There’s evidence of this slow-encroaching apocalypse all around, be it the corporatized megachurch run by Pastor Jeffers (superbly, superciliously played by Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), in whose shadow Toller operates. Or the oil company owned by the brazenly corrupt Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), one of the main financiers of the re-consecration ceremony over which Toller is about to preside. In Mary, that blessed stand-in for a certain biblical virgin, Toller sees some measure of hope, and a possibility for redemption, though that gets put on the backburner after a devastating incident involving Michael.
It’s at this narrative turning point that First Reformed truly becomes a Paul Schrader film, one involving, among other things, an astonishing otherworldly vision—occasioned by a sublime moment in which Seyfried’s hair topples gently over the side of her face—and a secretly constructed suicide vest that’s treated throughout like Chekov’s unfired gun. (The sparely employed musical score, by Welsh dark ambient composer Lustmord, also exacerbates the overarching sense of unease.) Schrader primes his audience for flesh-rending violence. In one scene, Toller upbraids the woman, Esther (Victoria Hill), who had a major hand in breaking up his marriage, and his words fly like the bullets that Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle fired indiscriminately in the gory climax of Taxi Driver. But the filmmaker’s after much-larger thematic game here—namely the futility yet necessity of love on a planet that will one day soon, per George Carlin, “shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”
Greatness is often intertwined with insanity, and there’s no way to describe the finale of First Reformed as anything other than a dual act of extreme devotion and inspired lunacy. It surely wouldn’t work as well without Hawke, perfectly cast and doing career-best work. He has the sunken cheeks of a science classroom’s skeleton and the world-weariness of a man twice his age. When he reveals how old he is (“46,” he sighs) to Michael, it’s with a palpable, utterly defeated resignation. Yet there’s still evidence of the gorgeous, hopeful young man he once was. Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest itself turned to some degree on the physical attractiveness of its sickly lead character, played by Claude Laydu; there’s nothing quite so stimulating as consecrated beauty, especially in a cinematic context. Schrader’s film imagines what might happen if that man of god wasn’t cut down in his prime, but lived to decay corporeally, morally and spiritually, watching as his works recede and his faith atrophies. All while a self-created void beckons.
It’s heartening that Schrader still finds salvation to be possible, as well as recognizes that a suicide vest introduced in the first act needn’t necessarily go off in the third. The at once blissful and bonkers sequence that closes First Reformed is his most transcendent vision of absolution attained in the abyss.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 7–17.