There will be few films this year as powerful, probing and downright philosophical as Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. This deep rumination upon aspects of faith, morality and judgment should come as no surprise to anyone that has followed his career. He notably started as a critic focussing on issues of religion and cinema, and his most famous script is one he wrote for Scorsese about an Vietnam vet who comes back with demons within, seeking out sociopathic release and in doing so finding implausible public redemption and accolades for his sins.
If the marketing agents were in charge here then First Reformed could easily have been spun as Taxi Driver 2: Priest Edition. For while Schrader’s own films have touched upon these prevailing issues of morality before, nothing has been as concrete and effective as his latest work. The fact that this exhilarating film is from the pen of a septuagenarian is no coincidence, for what it lacks in fiery genre elements of his earlier masterpiece it gains in even more subtle, at times poisonous nihilism at the heart of his work.
First Reformed follows Toller (Ethan Hawke), an ex-military man haunted by the ghost of his son who was just killed on duty after following his lead. Finding religion under the guidance of a kindly if compromised mega-church preacher (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles in a pitch perfect role), he’s tasked with running a Dutch Reformed “tourist church”, a bucolic, white walled edifice, poorly attended, set to celebrate its sestercentennial. He is approached by a newly pregnant congregant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who is concerned about her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). His strident environmentalism has filled him with dread about the future, unable to reconcile bringing a life into an already doomed world.
As Toller writes in a diary about his own torturous struggles with drink and darkness these reflections provide a narration that echoes the soliloquies of Taxi Driver. A half dozen other art-house references are checked – Bresson, Dryer, Bergman – all serving to enrich rather than coddle what’s at its heart the work of one highly sensitive writer/filmmaker tackling the very same provocations and irreconcilable paradoxes that stem from his Calvinist upbringing.
First Reformed plays out partly as melodrama, partly as a grinding exploitation genre film. When blood is spilled it’s delivered in buckets, when surrealism kicks in it’s both balletic and bizarre. Yet throughout Schrader’s direction keeps a tight leash on Hawke’s performance, eliciting a wonderful sullen take that provides brief glimpses of the raging fire within. Toller’s connection to Esther (Victoria Hill) is perhaps the most broadly drawn, yet the hostility that meets kindness exhibited provides some of the film’s most jarring and moments, providing complexity to what otherwise might be a two-dimensional character.
With an ending that easily could be read as literal, it’s far more in keeping to think of it as fleeting desire fulfilment rather than actual occurrence. This speaks to the undercurrent of the entire work, where the hope of something nice is struggling with the very real understanding (thanks to the curse/blessing of rationality) that things truly are going to shit.
First Reformed is a very dark film for very dark times. Lacking some of the fireworks that otherwise draw would draw in wider audiences through conventions of action or violence, this is instead a film to be soaked in and contemplated. It takes the parables of great existential works of cinema and recontextualizes them in to a contemporary setting, providing a work perhaps too demanding for an audience used to more kinetic fare. Yet what’s truly exhilarating about the work is how Schrader has capped his career with this achievement, articulating with rare precision a vision that may be dark but in all ways feels electrically charged with the spirit of truth behind it.
Like few filmmakers of his or any generation Schrader’s gift is to be able to formalize the struggles of the spiritual into the secular structures of cinema. The apotheosis of this gift may well be First Reformed, where with Toller he makes manifest his quest to make sense of the infinite and confront our nascent compulsion towards despair, moral ambiguity and, at worst, a zealotous assurance of our own view of the world. The fact that just profound ruminations take place in a film that still manages to captivate and entertain is perhaps its greatest wonder.
We have here a great work by a great artist doing things that great art should do – making us think, feel and reflect, all without devolving into polemicism or some dour, preachy, maudlin thing. It’s a work to be seen over and over, one that encourages cinematic literacy without appearing disdainful of those that might not get all the allusions. It’s both self-contained and deeply entrenched in what’s come before, and as such provides not only thrills in and of itself but encourages a deeper dive into both the issues that it raises and the myriad of films and works that it echoes.
In a landscape of film where we’ve become complacent, finding comfort either in adolescent adventures or, worse, stridently anti-narrative masturbatory dreck posing as provocative or profound, it’s comforting that such an adult, audacious work can still be found to enthrall.
First Reformed feels like a bit of a miracle, and we can thank the cinematic gods that Schrader’s fire still burns very brightly indeed.