DIR/WRI: Paul Schrader • DOP: Alexander Dynan • ED: Benjamin Rodriguez Jr • DES: David Wilson • MUS: Brian Williams • PRO: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Gary Hamilton, Victoria Hill, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon • CAST: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed doesn’t simply begin, it bleeds into consciousness. Blooming from darkness our eyes creep through time where a divine relic looms large. A simple yet striking design, this white-washed steeple sits quietly detached from its surroundings as twig-tipped trees strike silhouettes against the churning sky. The camera ushers its audience as if a stray procession seeking refuge from the toppling clouds above, yet we can’t help but feel a sense of doubt as the church contorts with every yard gained. Is this building a shelter for the stranded or salvation’s snare?
For Schrader, cinema is that shelter and together we tiptoe into his church. Dreyer, Bergman and Bresson make up the three wise men and their gifts brought and borrowed embalm each frame with a meditative stillness. It’s a transcendental cinema of ritual and routine where form shapes content into a flickering genuflection. It’s what Schrader calls the ‘scalpel of boredom’, time unspooled and sculpted into an existential itch out of reach. There’s a silent fury boiling behind the camera, frothing the vocabulary of a collective anxiety. It’s an unease that can be traced back through the mottled diary of Travis Bickle where apocalyptic predictions pry open the blistered boroughs of Taxi Driver (1976).
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) too keeps a diary, but what starts out as an exercise to keep his thoughts in order, soon becomes a document of spiritual malaise. Toller oversees the aforementioned Church, more a tourist pit stop than a place of worship, this parish is on the verge of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Toller is soon approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to lend spiritual counsel to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist wrought with despair. Expecting their first child Michael can’t bear the thought of introducing a new being into a world teetering on the edge of oblivion. The Reverend’s heartfelt words do little to stir Michael from his misery, instead a reversal occurs. Like an infection, Toller contracts a sickness of the soul and soon festering concerns seep across diary pages with the ominous mantra, ‘Will God forgive us?’.
Toller has become disillusioned not with God but with humanity. While he preaches to half-empty pews congregations crowd Abundant Life, a nearby megachurch run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric ‘The Entertainer’ Kyles), a corporate Christian whose disarming warmth represents the modern faith Toller rejects. Schrader grinds his camera against the mounting tension between faith and politics to explore what hope can be held in a hopeless world.
It’s a tension that lies ever present across Toller’s face. The narrow crease cutting between Hawke’s eyes externalizes a lacerated soul, a mind torn in two. Hawke quietly tinkers behind a face of numbed expression to internalize a soul screaming to be heard. An actor whose giddy limbs and casual charm oozed his way to stardom, now seems a shadow slipping through scenes to elude our grasp.
A stark shooting strategy is incorporated which echoes the reverend’s torment where static shots linger in a tight aspect ratio smothering any sense of relief. It’s a style that harks back to the European greats, a nostalgia that seems at odds with the film’s lifeless digital format, where images appear crisp and cold. A tug of war ensues, where even the film’s form is wriggling in its own skin. Schrader nudges us adrift in time only to find ourselves lost behind a modern lens.
The dissonance in design spills over to the film’s dressing where just a kitsch lamp is enough to unbalance an uncluttered composition. There is no comfort to be found. With every camera move, every slow push in and pan, we sense a whispering menace, we’re being simultaneously pushed and pulled, passively asphyxiated to the point where even Toller’s church begins to look like a courtroom, where judge, jury and executioner make up the Holy Trinity.
According to reports, First Reformed could be Paul Schrader’s last film, if so it marks the end of a terrific thematic through line. ‘God’s lonely man’ stemmed from the budding rage of Travis Bickle, nestling in the narcissism of American Gigolo’s (1980) Julian Kaye to then be caught in the midst of a mid-life crisis with John LaTour in Light Sleeper (1992). Now, later in life, Rev. Ernst Toller hosts the malignant spirit snarling against a faceless future. Cast loose on the periphery of society these bodies drift through a city slumped in a capitalist comatose, they’re wanderers, lookers, sleepless and shirtless, disciplined but deranged as if unsprung coils set to spring these bodies lay outstretched craving communion in every street corner, bedroom and diner. But for all First Reformed’s soundless fury, it’s the perforated moments of intimate wonder which gnaw against our subconscious, a divine sweetness blossoming between bruises.
15A (See IFCO for details)
First Reformed is released 13th July 2018