Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.
A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperation. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.
Taxi Driver (directed by Martin Scorsese from Schrader’s provocative original screenplay) is constantly referenced by critics and audiences but you’ll see imagery out of Bresson, Dreyer, and Bergman, a quote from Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and the search for spiritual meaning and redemption and the spiral into despair and obsession woven through the films of Schrader’s career, both as screenwriter (The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead) and director (Light Sleeper, Affliction). First Reformed doesn’t revisit these ideas so much as distill them into a powerful, personal drama directed with a visual austerity that strips Toller’s world to the bone. Hawke’s controlled performance keeps Toller’s turmoil under an almost expressionless mask and physical stillness, locking his loss away and suppressing a growing crisis of faith. As he tries to give Michael reasons for hope, he could be trying to convince himself.
His minimally furnished quarters transform a historic American house into a chilly, spare monastery cell, as if shedding the baggage of the modern world, and his personal life is a routine of sermons, tourist tours, and solitary chores. Schrader shoots the film in the old Academy Ratio of 1.33:1, which seems to add to the simplicity, with measured pacing and editing observing the slow pace of life here, contrasted with the warm color and swirl of activity at the modern tabernacle of the parent megachurch, Abundant Life, and gregarious yet business-minded and image-conscious pastor (Cedric the Entertainer, billed under his given name Cedric Kyles). It makes Toller’s isolation and growing disconnection all the more pronounced, and he becomes downright cruel to drive away its choirmaster Esther (Victoria Hill), who worries over his neglected health.
This being an American answer to Schrader’s transcendental filmmaking heroes, the third act swerves into violent action (where the echoes of Taxi Driver are most evident) but even this doesn’t follow any expected narrative track. Schrader remains with Toller’s psychological and spiritual journey and Hawke, giving the most controlled and introspective performance of his career, offers a character who is at once tabula rasa, tormented soul, and wounded loner who has driven away all emotional contact yet yearns for human connection in his visions. First Reformed will surely frustrate audiences expecting a more conventionally expressive psychological drama. Personal, introspective, and austere, it puts demands on the viewer to engage with it in ways many American audiences simply aren’t used to. Perhaps that is Schrader’s most meaningful affinity with the works of Dreyer and Bresson and Tarkovsky: challenging viewers to delve past the surfaces and narrative expectations and grapple with the ideas and themes and serenity of the filmmaking style.
The Blu-ray and DVD editions from Lionsgate, feature commentary by the always articulate filmmaker Paul Schrader and the featurette “Discernment: Contemplating First Reformed.” The Blu-ray edition also features a bonus digital copy of the film.