In recent years, Paul Schrader the screenwriter and Paul Schrader the director haven’t always been the cosiest of bedfellows. His script for the pitch black psycho-drama Taxi Driver gave us one of Martin Scorsese’s most acclaimed works and came to represent the peak of New Hollywood depravity. Yet, for the last decade and then some, it’s been one deeply troubled production after the next. He’s directed some great films in the past—1978’s Blue Collar and 1997’s Affliction come to mind. However, he’s struggled to make an impact or even enjoy a general release for most of his projects since.
For many cinephiles, Schrader is an auteur to root for. Someone we all hope has one great, late period effort within him. Enter the cold, cynical First Reformed, a much buzzed-about slow burner that delivers the comeback narrative that Schrader very much deserves. A deeply despairing address lamenting the wayward direction of humanity’s progress, this isn’t a pill that you’re going to swallow with ease. That said, it’s unquestionably the man’s best film in years. Though some may find this a tortuous journey into the theological.
First Reformed is a gentle reworking of the Taxi Driver set up. A resentful loner marginalises himself, rallying against the rotting world around him, falling prey to his own increasingly disturbed psyche. There is also, once again, plenty of despairing narration from our embittered protagonist. The Travis Bickle stand-in this time is Reverend Ernst Toller, played with a restrained but crackling instability by Ethan Hawke. He leads a minuscule congregation at New York’s First Reformed, a church that does better business as a Dutch colonial era, tourist attraction than with the faith-based service it was built for.
Toller isn’t quite the recluse Bickle was. Yet, he’s getting there. After losing a son to the Iraq war and a marriage to the grief that followed, the reverend is in a listless state of arrested development. A former military chaplain, it was Toller’s influence that sent his child to combat and it’s a burden he carries on his body like a ten foot cross throughout. He speaks to a crowd of single figures every Sunday and acts as a tour guide to only a slightly more interested, but no less modest, group during the week. He keeps a journal to write down all his unvarnished thoughts for one year but the exercise becomes more of an excuse to drown has sorrows in the bottom of a bottle than it is for any genuine self-reflection. He’s getting through to no one, least of all himself.
Things only change for him when pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to the reverend. She pleading for him to chat with her depressed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who believes bringing a child into a world blighted by climate change is an affront to morality. When Toller tries to convince him that abortion is not the answer, it barely registers. Instead, Michael’s prediction of a global catastrophe orchestrated by mankind’s mistakes ends up resonating as the reverend finds his beliefs shaken and faith in humanity challenged. Even as Michael becomes a risk to himself and others, Toller can’t help but see the justification of his cause.
In interviews, the director has spoken about how this is the film he both always wanted and never wanted to make. It’s a personal one. Of his filmmaking peers Scorsese and Spielberg, Schrader said that their “adolescent consciousness is defined by movies. My adolescent consciousness is defined by the church and the family structure”. First Reformed is an unflinching examination of what happens when those intuitions we’ve relied on since our formative years become obsolete in an age of impending environmental disaster, hyper-violent newsfeeds and a toxic apathy that permeates society. It’s an existential nightmare that gradually burrows its way under your skin like no few films since well…Under the Skin.
While there is only a limited cast and a miniscule budget, the scope here is sizeable. Toller’s experience with Michael’s eco-pessimism sends him down a rabbit hole of detached activism that we always sense will go nowhere. He begins to rally against his employer, Abundant Life, a megachurch that he thinks is bound by God to speak out against the practices that could lead to disastrous weather events and widespread conflict. It’s doesn’t help matters that the church and relic of a more humble past he presides over is sustained financially by a fossil fuel burning multinational called Balq Industries.
The rapid commodification of organised religion means that the evangelical party line is always going to be adhered to. The audiences who watch the massively popular simulcasts of Abundant Life’s masses would not accept anything else. “You think God wants to destroy his creation?” asks Toller “He did once. For 40 days and 40 nights” replies his superior and Pastor without missing a beat. The curt response is either an affirmation of the belief in the creator’s plan or an attempt to divorce oneself of social responsibility. Either way, the line only exacerbates the film’s central spiritual crisis. It’s not that God doesn’t exist but what does it say about us if he does.
Schrader isn’t a strictly religious director by any means. He’s just as curious about what the current climate of having everything available at the touch of a button, including the knowledge of how fucked we are, is doing to the human condition. At about the halfway point, there’s a brutally macabre reveal in a decaying woodland that’s delivered with such nonchalant frankness it borders on the comical. It’s a devastating moment and one that speaks to how gruesome imagery Is just as accessible as a walk in the park in this day and age.
Strange as it is to say about a 71-year-old with dozens of credits behind him, but Schrader has really come into his own as a director. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan seems a good anchor for him. The wintry, wallowed grit of the locales coupled with some putridly polluted, natural landscapes make it seem like the apocalyptic future is already present in upstate New York. The colourless, chilly interiors offer only a sterile respite to the outside as the tight aspect ratio is closing in on Toller from opposite sides of the frame. Hawke is proof that heartthrobs do their best work when they can get to middle age and play sad sacks who show us their back acne. Plus, Seyfried is typically terrific.
Schrader is hardly on the reverend’s side either. He sees Toller’s drastic fundamentalist solutions as just as hypocritical as anyone else’s. As his convictions become more entrenched, he callously pushes away those around him until he’s only living in his own head. The ambiguity of the final moments will be much debated. However, there is certainly a questioning of the value of martyrdom, which Toller seems close to believing is the only ethical act he has left. In the end, maybe he’s is just like the rest of us, wanting to be held one last time before the end is here. And maybe when we all go, that’s the only legacy that matters.
First, Reformed sucks the soul right of you. A caustic work that regards our sense of pre-eminence as ill-deserved, it may be the most wilfully despairing film this year. Yet as it looks straight into the void, it managed to somehow mine out a sliver of hope in the process. A human connection may not save all of us, but it may save just one of us.