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Paul Schrader’s powerful new drama First Reformed is Shaker furniture in movie form – stark, plain, conceived in austere and intelligent good taste; beautifully made, in fact, but maybe more designed for looking at than actually sitting on. It is about a man of God and his personal spiritual ordeal, building inexorably to an apocalyptic climax. Schrader has spoken of being inspired by Pawel Pawłikowski’s Oscar-winning film Ida, but for me it was more as if Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light had been remade with Travis Bickle in the leading role.
The resemblances here to Schrader’s script for Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver are surely deliberate. There is an unforgettably grisly moment when the tormented priest, harrowed by stomach cancer and alcoholism, pours a slug of shocking pink Pepto-Bismol into his whisky; he and we gaze into the yucky gloop unfurling in the booze, very like Travis staring at the Alka-Selzer fizzing in his glass in closeup, while he takes a break from driving his cab around New York’s unwashed streets of sin.
The priest at the centre of First Reformed is the Reverend Ernst Toller (evidently an allusion to the German dramatist who took his own life in exile in 1939), played with unflinching conviction by Ethan Hawke. He is serious, disciplined, shown at first writing by hand in a laceratingly self-critical journal. Toller seems never to be out of ecclesiastical dress and is always sporting a stern side-parting; the sort of haircut he probably had for his first communion. He is a Protestant, like Schrader, and there is some robust joking around on the subject of Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, although the preoccupation with guilt, and indeed Toller’s own ascetic image, surely also have something Catholic in them.
Toller is a well-liked priest who comes from a family with strong military and patriotic traditions. He encouraged his son to enlist in the army in the face of objections from his wife, who has now left him. Within six months the boy had been killed in Iraq, in a war Toller now sees as utterly futile and fraudulent. He is now in an unending dark night of the soul, drinking heavily in the evenings in his TV-less and comfortless apartments and urinating in bloody pain, but impeccably conscientious with his tiny but devoted congregation.
Toller has been made the vicar of the beautiful and historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York, but it is clear that this is a sort of sinecure, looking after a tourist attraction, superintended by a much larger church, run by the Reverend Joel Jeffers, very well played by Cedric Kyles, who as a standup comic is better known as Cedric the Entertainer. Toller is the subject of much official worry: Jeffers is notionally responsible for his pastoral care, but looks more irritated than concerned. Toller also goes to a secular therapy group, but his tentative attempts to dissociate Christianity from nationalism earn him a ferocious attack from an alt-right student.
Toller’s anguish is finally triggered by a request from a parishioner, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried, who wishes Toller to speak to her depressed partner Michael (Philip Ettinger). He is an environmental campaigner who has done jail time for peaceful protest and who is now himself in a crisis due to the fact that Mary is pregnant. Do they have the right to bring a child into a world that humanity has arrogantly despoiled? Something in Michael’s militant passion reawakens something in Toller, especially when he realises that a notorious Big Oil polluter is sponsoring his church.
The sheer Bunyanesque severity of this film is as refreshing as a glass of ice-cold water. It is shot by Alexander Dynan in a palette so restrained it feels almost monochrome, and designed by Grace Yun. Restrained, unadorned compositions are interleaved by sharply candid and unsmiling closeups for dialogue, which in turn are interlaced with stern narrative voiceover. It offsets the moments of emotion: notably Toller’s poignantly innocent and even childlike joy in riding a bicycle for the first time in decades. And there is an extraordinary, hallucinatory scene in which Mary appears to achieve a kind of intimacy with him. It’s a scene that abolishes the gravity of normal realism.
First Reformed is a passionately focused film but not a masterpiece, being flawed as it is by a certain inability to decide on an ending. What emerges is a bit preposterous, and I wondered if Schrader was straining for a note of maturity. But that is the price you pay for such ferocity, and it’s a price worth paying.
Source: The Guardian
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