The “flawed holy-man” has become almost a genre in and of itself. Taking obvious influences from Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Bergman’s Winter Light (1962), among others, Paul Schrader, in his new film First Reformed, crafts a complex character study of a man on the edge of despair. The resulting film is a mesmerizing, highly politicized, slow dance away from realist filmmaking that might just be the best two hours I’ve spent in a theater all year.
Schrader first made a name for himself as the screenwriter for Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver. Since then, the studied cinephile has had an inconsistent trajectory of success in the production of his own commercial cinema. First Reform, he declared, at age 71, is his attempt to take back “final cut” and make the art film he’s always wanted.
Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the reverend of Albany’s First Reformed Church, a relic of old American Christianity. First Reformed was once a stop on the Underground Railroad and now lives in the shadows of a neighboring megachurch, Abundant Life and its spiritual leader Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer). As the community gears up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of First Reform’s “Souvenir Shop” church, Toller begins to loathe the bravado and commercialism that has become synonymous with success within his profession. A former army chaplain, Toller confesses, “this is not the church I was called to,” referring not just to First Reformed, but to the larger ecclesiastical order. At night, Toller sits in his dark, unfurnished quarters, drinking whiskey alone while recording his existential doubt in a journal whose entries serve as voice-over for large portions of the film.
Without giving too much of the plot away—First Reformed is a gem we enjoy because of its slow unravel—Mary (a pregnant Amanda Seyfried), a member of First Reformed’s congregation, asks Toller to counsel her serviceman husband who has become unhinged by the idea of bringing a child into a world so polluted and destined for environmental collapse. A close relationship with these eco-activists has the potential to push Toller off of his already teetering edge.
Hawke plays Toller with a reserve and enigmatic despair previously unseen in a career riddled with characters of unusual joviality. It is refreshing and mesmerizing to watch. Schrader, a career advocate of the long take, keeps his lens stationary and fills the frame with layers of action and imagery that require his audience to actively participate in the film’s meaning-making.
In a recent interview with Cinemascope, Schrader discusses his use of the long take as an aesthetic tool:
“A man exits a room, closes the door. In a regular film, you lay the splice as the door closes. [But if you] wait one, two, three seconds on the closed door. What’s happening then? Something is happening. It’s not nothing. You’re watching a closed door…The filmmaker is now putting your mind to work. To what degree can the filmmaker determine what thoughts you will have in the duration?”
In First Reformed, Schrader puts his audience in the passenger seat of Toller’s existential paradox of faith when he admits, “A life without despair is a life without hope.” Toller is a character who is plagued (both personally and globally) by the guilt of inaction, and we, as viewers through Schrader’s static lens, must grapple with meaning-making right along with the characters on screen.
At face value, the film’s politics often contradict themselves. No opinion is handed to you simply. Schrader wants us active—wants us leaving the theater engaged with our own thoughts on the politics of now. The ending will either leave you pulling your hair out or satisfied with a convoluted image of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape. First Reformed is not an easy watch, but it’s an important one.