Few things are more trite or cliche to espouse as your own theology of sorts as “the world’s going to hell so why bring a child into it?” Yes, as the world slowly spins down the drain towards complete and utter disaster and destruction, the bleakness that goes with the idea of this generation being the last deserving of this planet is so pessimistic that it almost becomes an easy out for people void of progressive ideas. However, this crisis of faith both spiritually and in one another has sparked some of the great art not just of the post-Trump era, but throughout history.
And the latest addition to this collection of captivating dissections of humanity’s own battle with spiritual and interpersonal faith comes from one of film’s most seasoned and thrilling artists.
Paul Schrader returns to the big screen with First Reformed, a film that has garnered a great deal of acclaim throughout its recent festival run, seeing the iconic screenwriter/filmmaker/critic/curmudgeon at both his most cinematically reverential and yet on the precipice of a new stage in his career. Feeling at once like a “final film” (whatever that truly means) and yet finding Schrader at his most angry and energized in well over a decade, First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke as Revered Ernst Toller, the leader of a small congregation in rural upstate New York. Frequented by few consistent parishioners, Toller’s congregation is backed by a megachurch led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle), and more or less funded by this conglomerate as well as the small pittance it makes as a sort of historic site and museum.
Toller is a career-defining turn for Hawke, his face showing the wear not only of an actor decades into his career, but that of a man deeply shaken by a real spiritual crisis. Toller’s life was one of dedicated military service, himself a military chaplain whose own son decided to join in his father’s footsteps. However, his son would soon lose his life, sending Toller and his wife into a tailspin, seeing them divorce what feels like not long after. Now ostensibly a lone wolf of sorts, Toller’s journal becomes a major source of insight into the character’s ever decreasing mental state, which finds a catalyst once a young woman, played by Amanda Seyfried, walks into his life.
One of the above mentioned frequent parishioners, Seyfried plays Mary, the wife of an environmentalist who has recently returned home after a brief stint in prison. Mary is turning to Toller for the support any proper pastor would happily give, as her husband, seeing the world slowly killing itself, wants her to have an abortion as he sees it ridiculous that they would be bringing new life into a world so clearly heading for oblivion at an ever increasing clip. In what is one of the film’s greatest sequences, the two men sit down for an exchange that’s more or less a simplistically shot two hander but is a devastating dissection of two increasingly straining worldviews. Hawke’s performance is quiet and staid, yet there’s a weariness that plays out as much in the actor’s eyes as it does in the soft nature of his cadence. It’s a remarkable performance that is fueled by Schrader’s almost silent film-like framing and focus on gestures and glances, a performance that sees Hawke at his most subtle and most physically dexterous.
After things devolve even more between Mary and her husband Michael, so much so that she discovers that her beau is planning to take his own life via an explosive vest, the film focuses much more clearly on Toller’s own shifting morals and ideals. In a scene near the conclusion of the film, Toller meets with Jeffers and a political figure, only to espouse more or less the exact verbiage he heard from Mary’s husband, as if it were his own. Is it his own? Is he simply finding an outlet for his own doubt in the importance of life? Is it all just a performance of a man in search for some higher calling? It’s this density in our lead’s own theology of sorts that gives Schrader’s picture such great depth. Slowly becoming enraptured in the same type of world that entwined Michael until it ultimately killed him, Toller’s guilt, regret and anger become the backdrop for a truly thrilling and mournful meditation on faith in the face of the end of the world.
It also helps that Schrader appears to be working at the absolute height of his powers. Mentioned above as a “reverential” film, First Reformed comes squarely from the mind of a former critic and cineaste, particularly one with an affinity for what’s become known as “slow cinema.” With clear nods to films like Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest in its look at the life of a priest in crisis (Toller’s physical deterioration is a clear comparison point as well) or the almost impressionistic lighting of a film like Dreyer’s Ordet, First Reformed wears its influences squarely on its collar. The film’s most bravura sequence, and what ostensibly shifts the film into the realm of the surreal and perversely sublime, starts with what feels like Schrader’s attempt at an abstractionist collage piece, a montage of the end of the world that would make David Lynch stand and applaud. Itself culminating in one of Schrader’s most jaw-dropping experiments, the film then draws squarely from the world of Tarkovsky, exploding into a surrealist redemption story.
Yet, while a lesser filmmaker would simply allow these allusions to stand as their own badge of cinephilia, Schrader adapts these aesthetic choices, allowing First Reformed to be both referential and a completely singular work. Gorgeously shot by Alexander Dynan, the film is shot in 1.37:1, using this more box-like frame as just one of the ways the film finds symmetry in its framing. Incredibly influenced by the framing of Dreyer and particularly Ozu, First Reformed is a film of rigid compositions, built on straight lines and ever important spatial dynamics. This is a far cry from the sleaziness of a Canyons or a Dog Eat Dog, finding Schrader at his most mature and most assured. It’s truly a gorgeously shot film, with lighting being a major key to the otherworldly atmosphere that’s ever increasing as the film proceeds. Again, influenced by silent cinema, each frame becomes more and more claustrophobic despite Toller’s ever increasing isolation, like the world isn’t so much closing in onto him as the ground is crumbling from under him. Photography is heavy on the contrast, and while the questions Schrader is asking may not be the most subtle, the answers he or the viewer come up with are transfixing and spiritually exhilarating. Come the film’s final sequence of violent, devastating redemption(?), the viewer has been transported from a film closely resembling our world to something on an entirely higher plain. Its an angry film, a transcendental look at a world on fire from an artist asking just where the Hell the adults are. It’s simply one of the great films of this, or any, year.