**** out of ****
(for language and disturbing, violent images)
Released: May 18, 2018 NY/LA; expands through June
Runtime: 113 minutes
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston
Spiritual, not religious.
That popular definition for post-modern people of nebulous faith is also a pretty good paradigm to start thinking about First Reformed. But unlike many who throw that phrase around, writer/director Paul Schrader infuses his cryptic tale with clear convictions.
An arthouse movie with a capital “A”, First Reformed is the kind of still, patient, and mystifying experience that will leave average moviegoers scratching their heads, yet for the hardcore cinephile it’s a spellbinding deep-dive of intellectual, moral, emotional, and even topical heft. The fact that it raises and wrestles with questions without ever answering them is part of the appeal, and its mastery.
Ethan Hawke, in arguably the best performance of his career (certainly this side of Jesse in the Before trilogy), stars as Reverend Toller, the pastor of a rural upstate New York Dutch Reformed parish on the verge of celebrating its 250th anniversary. The church has seen better days, as has Toller. The congregation is sparse; so is Toller’s weakening faith. He’s also secretly suffering from a progressing cancer.
The church, as much as anything, is a de facto tourist museum, underwritten by the local megachurch led by a charismatic but sincere preacher (Cedric the Entertainer) who’s more in tune with contemporary trends and expectations. When one of Toller’s few congregants, a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to counsel her troubled husband who’s expressing eco-terrorist sympathies, it sparks an existential crisis in Toller that leads to a downward spiral.
It’d be fitting to dub Toller “God’s Lonely Man”, a term coined by Schrader’s most famous creation Travis Bickle; it’s how that Vietnam vet described himself in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Like Bickle, loneliness is following Toller everywhere he goes, from personal tragedies to a world out of control. Despair mounts, overwhelmingly, even as Toller struggles to resist and overcome.
First Reformed a riveting departure for the over-70 filmmaker best known for his Scorsese screenplays (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out The Dead). Schrader’s own films – which include American Giglio, Hardcore, and Affliction – have had their own lurid fascinations, exploring the gritty, seedy, and sinful vices teeming in the cultural underbellies that Schrader was sheltered from during his strict Calvinist upbringing.
Apropos of that milieu, Schrader’s artistic style has been equally profane, brash, kinetic, and explicit.
First Reformed is the complete opposite of those things. It’s unlike anything that Schrader’s ever made before, but it’s the first to emulate the techniques and aesthetics that he literally wrote the book on: Transcendentalism.
In his 1972 critical thesis Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (which has recently been updated), Schrader synthesized the cinematic language of those three foreign directors, defining it as Spiritual (conversely, Schrader’s own films were aggressively carnal). Transcendental films are austere, their shots static, takes are long, the pacing slow and meditative, and narratives border on the inscrutable.
This visual syntax is reserved yet poetic, rejecting classical film modes and Hollywood manipulations (even the artful ones), but unlike Dogme 95 which boasts similar goals, spiritual films are guided by artful design and purpose, not anarchistic arrogance.
Transcendentalism invites viewers into an enigma but then leaves them there in it, not to solve but to ponder. Stillness and mystery are what connect you with the ineffable.
That’s a good description of First Reformed, which employs symbols and allegory without offering answers or solutions. Its three main metaphors are expressions of a core idea: human corruption. The first two – climate change and megachurches – reflect the adverse effects of consumerism. One is threatening our planet, the other our spirituality. The third metaphor is cancer, about our own internal decay and rot.
There are others, too, not the least of which is a pregnant Mary. A secularized mix of the Holy Mother and the Magdalene, she transfixes Toller as both a temptation and a hope. The church’s abolitionist history is also intentional, its participation on the underground railroad suggesting that heroism and hope is possible in toxic, dangerous times.
Even the visual frame is a symbol; Schrader forgoes the traditional theatrical widescreen in lieu of a square, literally boxing in a story and characters that, themselves, are increasingly boxed in.
The images by cinematographer Alexander Dynan in those frames are plain, unadorned, and locked down, but also eerily beautiful (and containing their own symbols; see the picture above). The interiors of Toller’s parsonage are particularly striking, reminiscent of 19th Century American paintings and still-life portraiture that reflect a spartan, puritanical simplicity.
The broken world will always give us reasons to despair, to lament the question “Why?” Toller rightly says that courage is the answer, not reason, yet when despair brings you to a breaking point courage is easier said than done, especially when justice is elusive or evil wins.
Faith can become difficult to embrace but, for Schrader, it’s also impossible to shake. That’s the unresolved conflict at the heart of First Reformed.
The final act crescendos with palpable tension and gut-churning unease as Schrader’s instincts finally break through the transcendental wall. It’s a provocative, volatile finale lacking in clarity that, for some, will frustrate and confound, particularly by the moment that Schrader chooses to cut to black on and roll the credits.
“You can’t think your way into the world of the soul,” Schrader has said. With First Reformed, he doesn’t explain or intellectualize his own soul. He simply, but powerfully, unleashes it.
(You can read more about Schrader and Transcendentalism in this analysis I wrote for Crosswalk.com, as well as listen to Charles Elmore, Adam Palmer and myself discuss First Reformed on The Bad and the Beautiful podcast.)