There can be nothing more dangerous than an awakened consciousness. Paul Schrader’s new and fierce work, First Reformed (2017), is a portrait of a man connecting with a world in crisis, even as he is silently torn by his own scars. Beautifully composed, it is a film that reaches well beyond the surface of its story. It is about the very condition and mood of our times, and the palpable sense of some oncoming cataclysm.
We are but individuals operating within the larger panorama of societies and nations. Some of us are bond strong by belief systems; others despair within their beliefs at a world symbolically ready to burn. Paul Schrader has been a filmmaker of the latter ilk since his early days when he composed furious, violent works which, even when featuring traditional plots, displayed an artist grappling with the spirit and the flesh.
In the simmering First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, who is in charge of a small, colonial-era Protestant church in New York State, named First Reformed. A former military chaplain, Toller lost his wife after their son was killed fighting in Iraq. He spends his days and nights cloistered, drinking and feeling physical signs of illness. He refuses the loving advances of a church worker named Esther (Victoria Hill). Toller has decided to write a journal for twelve months, documenting his inner-most feelings and observations. But the outside world intrudes when a young married couple, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger), come to Toller seeking counsel. Michael is a radical environmental activist plagued by depression. Mary is pregnant, and Michael wonders if it’s even worth bringing a life into a world so ruined and seemingly headed for cataclysm. His talks with Toller challenge the reverend’s subdued nature, provoking a sudden, profound awareness both political and personal. Tragedy soon strikes when Michael commits suicide, driving Toller into a deeper clash between the cosmetic attitudes of his church and an overwhelming sense of urgency and bleakness. The pastor of the megachurch overseeing Toller’s smaller church, Rev. Cedric Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer), notices not all is well with Toller and hopes he can be in shape for the church’s upcoming 200th anniversary. But Toller is slowly becoming driven towards a higher calling against what he perceives are the real forces of darkness poisoning “God’s creation.”
First Reformed is the work of a filmmaker who has come full circle. Schrader’s cinema has sought the transcendental through characters driven by gargantuan passions. This is the first film where he has honed that passion into a focused piece of reflection. To understand Schrader’s voice in this film, it is important to understand where he comes from, for it is in the cradle of the artist that much of his or her future work plants its seeds. A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schrader was raised in a strict Calvinist home. It is a Protestant world both intimate and adherent to silent codes of conduct in contrast to open, blunt codes of belief. Like their Baptist brethren, those of Calvinist persuasion trace a vein leading back to the Puritans in terms of their social structure, adapted to a modern existence. Denied the sensual temptations of cinema as a child, Schrader did not see his first film until he was 18. By his own admission the discovery of cinema was a liberating, powerful experience for young Schrader. Via the cinema, a repressed soul will quickly feel the intoxication of its liberating embodiment of the imagination. Sex, violence and the farthest corners of the world become instantly available as themes, expressions and fierce emotions.
After testing the waters as a film critic, under the tutelage of Pauline Kael, Schrader felt the call to actually write screenplays and direct films. The result is a body of work where men are driven by isolation and messianic intensities. As a screenwriter, his most famous collaborator has been Martin Scorsese, for whom Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead. In all these films individuals with haunted interiors seek transcendence through violence, rage, missions or love. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle becomes a self-proclaimed avenging angel against the scum infesting New York City, even as he processes his own sexual frustrations. With The Last Temptation of Christ, Schrader adapted the controversial novel by Nikos Kazantzakis in which Jesus becomes a man struggling between the spirit and the flesh, discovering a radical system of belief which pulls him between revolution and enlightenment.
But the clearest link between Schrader’s earlier work and First Reformed is in his films as a director. Consider two key films. His 1979 film Hardcore stars George C. Scott as a Calvinist businessman who journeys into Los Angeles’s porn underworld to find his runaway daughter, forcing a confrontation between his conformity and a sexual environment he would never fathom entering. Schrader’s greatest film in the 1980s, and still his crowning cinematic achievement, is the 1985 biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. This visually immersive experience recounts the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, a radical traditionalist who literally lived and breathed the tempestuous passions of his novels. So dedicated was Mishima to reviving the old codes and culture of his country that he formed a private militia, attempted to stage a coup and ended his life by committing seppuku. To demonstrate how linked the author was to his own craft, the film flows in and out of Mishima’s story and staged passages from his works. One can sense a subtle link between Mishima’s radicalism, the avenging spirit of Travis Bickle and the search for knowledge by Schrader’s Christ.
In First Reformed, Schrader returns to the well of his own upbringing. No longer are his tempests veiled by the beliefs or stories of others, this is a film set firmly in the world from which the artist was bred. Reverend Toller is a man who lives in a solitude that is almost medieval. The scenes where he writes in his journal have a lighting technique more appropriate for candlelight. He speaks in a language fit for a more formal age. Toller rejects Esther because there is a profound void in him that must be filled by something deeper than companionship. When Toller meets Michael it is as if the young radical crystalizes his own anxieties. There is an obvious guilt in Toller for having encouraged his son to enlist, because it was out of a blind sense of patriotism. What is the value of loyalty to a state that misleads its own population into conflict? The Iraq War is but one scar in countless others on a world headed for the brink, something that becomes clear for Toller when Michael opens his mind to the environmental catastrophe that is brewing. Toller, alone at night in his home, scans the internet for information on climate change, his sense of horror grows. What develops is a silent scream within the man, similar to the preacher in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light who is consumed by a dread of nuclear war. Bergman himself was a preacher’s son, and he too spent his career as a director grappling with questions which arise from our deepest selves. First Reformed is similar to both Winter Light and Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, another film about a clergyman whose institutional beliefs are challenged by the cruel whims of the world.
Where Schrader takes a different turn from Bergman or Bresson is in using Toller as an agent of radical awakening. Not only does the reverend become more attune to an earth in crisis, he begins to develop within his despair an urge to speak out and become a voice for action, even if it is action relegated to his small corner. He does not choose to join some militant group or even form his own. Instead he begins to question the complacency all around him. His fellow — a much more prosperous — preacher Cedric is rattled when Toller brings up the issue of climate change, insisting that God flooded the Earth once, so why wouldn’t he do it again? During a meeting at a diner with a wealthy donor and energy executive, Toller again puts forth the issue of corporate destruction of the environment, only to be chastised for not minding his own life. He becomes a rebel, but because Schrader is a filmmaker who has come from this world, he does not have Toller ever abandon or reject his faith. On the contrary, Toller seems to rediscover his beliefs in a purified light. He becomes a conduit for Isaiah 58: “If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.” At Michael’s funeral Toller brings a church choir to sing not a hymn, but an environmentalist anthem.
A unique theme which emerges from between-the-lines of this film is the ongoing division within the Protestant church in the United States. The relationship between church and politics, faith and worldly affairs have become an explosive terrain, especially after the 2016 election. Toller’s rage increases because his vision clears to the corporate greed infesting Cedric’s church, which extends its dominion over First Reformed. Schrader is raising challenging, profound moral debates here. For Toller the very fate of the earth and its continuous poisoning are an issue of high moral urgency. But the high rollers in the church do not see it this way. One could easily translate this debate to the current political landscape, as Protestants battle over just how far their institutions should go in ignoring certain moral faults for the sake of preferred legislative policy. Ironically, Toller as a Calvinist is tapping into another strand of the Reformation, that of the Anabaptists.
The first rejecters of infant Baptism, the Anabaptists were medieval proto-anarchists as chronicled in the excellent history The Pursuit of the Millennium, by Norman Cohn, who tells us the “Anabaptists refused to hold an official position in the state, or to invoke the authority of the state against a fellow Anabaptist, or to take up arms on behalf of the state.” They engaged in violent revolution, at times led by figures such as the radical monk Thomas Muntzer, who preached the destruction of worldly kingdoms and the creation of a society where the motto would be, “omnia sunt commonia,” or “all things are held in common.” Toller soon finds a bomb vest made by Michael and begins to wonder if the other cheek can indeed be turned. We again live in an age of unchained, violent extremes, yet devoid of ideology or following nihilistic codes. In one scene Toller watches a suicide bombing on YouTube, as if he were coming into contact with the violence in the air, like the characters in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
Yet Schrader himself is not a radical in the leftist or even egalitarian sense, even if his thinking processes are radical. At a recent press conference for the film, he admitted he believes our species to be doomed, destined to not see the next century. Even as a young film critic he stood out from the consensus of the times, dismissing the poses of a film like Easy Rider as superficial. In his interesting review, available in the collection Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, he writes, “I demand more of art than I do of life. I desire the sensitivity and insight that only an artist can give. And the more important the subject-matter, the more crucial the insight becomes.” Adverse to ideologies, Schrader was never taken in by the popular Maoist sentiments which were common at Berkeley and UCLA — where he attended — but he did protest the Vietnam War because it was simply wrong and barbarous. While abandoning his Calvinist background, Schrader still maintained a strict moral sense even within the liberating environment of the arts. His characters, especially Toller, begin to transcend superficial codes of conduct imposed by a reactionary order, and instead discover a moral power that is so clear it will drive the individual to then turn on his previous masters. Even the church, with its restraining codes and its groveling to the powerful in exchange for comfort, becomes immoral in the eyes of Toller. He soon changes the sign outside First Reformed, so it asks if God will ever forgive humankind for what it has wrought.
The very look and technique of the film radically depart from what is mainstream and conventional in today’s cinema. Schrader’s framing is beautiful, baroque and marked by an uneasy serenity. The cutting is never fast. Instead like Bergman, Schrader allows the camera to settle on a face as if it were a map for the soul’s convulsions. The landscapes of this film are cold, struck by loneliness, and the nights are perfect for longing. It was Schrader who wrote the definitive study of this kind of transcendent filmmaking in Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, in which he analyzed the techniques of these three filmmakers who weaved patient works which created an almost spiritual texture. First Reformed achieves a spiritual environment that is not particularly religious because Schrader is going beyond the surface of organized faith. Rather, he is pitting the institution against genuine belief.
The clash occurs elegantly and sensually in the film’s fantastic, emotional climax. In an earlier scene Mary approaches Toller for solace, and seeks his embrace. Schrader transitions the moment into a hallucination, as Toller holds Mary and they seem to be floating in the firmament. Schrader seems to be implying that beyond political allegiances, in a world of demagogues and terror, it is pure love, as desire, as genuine contact, which can save us and keep us sane. There is a moment of intense reverie within a kiss later in the film, and it becomes clear that in dark times genuine love, primal and honest, is the most radical act of all.
First Reformed arrives for the summer film season like a strange, elegant work of insurgency. What a strange film to release amid the comic book cataclysms and costumed superheroes wandering strange dystopias. Paul Schrader reveals himself as an artist of spiritual depths, while challenging the audience to feel instead of consume. In a world flirting with abyss, a fiery heart becomes as sharp and dangerous as any sword.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.