Review Contains Spoilers
Paul Schrader is a bit of an anomaly among veteran film directors in that, when looked at from afar, he actually has a pretty impressive filmography but it doesn’t always feel like that. Part of that might simply be that his accomplishments as a screenwriter have long overshadowed his work as a director. That’s perhaps understandable, handing off a script like Taxi Driver off to a different director tends to have that effect, but he does have some really solid directorial credits as well like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and American Gigolo so that can’t be the only problem. The real problem is simple inconsistency. For a guy who tends to speak very seriously about cinema and who once wrote a book called “Transcendental Style in Film” about Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer Schrader sure seems to get involved in some questionable projects. This has always been a problem for Schrader, who even in his prime years found himself making sensationalist projects like Hardcore and bad ideas like his Cat People remake. But the last fifteen years have been particularly dismissible with him making Exorcist prequels, trashy Nicholas Cage movies, and tabloid baiting Lindsay Lohan movies with hardly a single real triumph since 2002’s Auto Focus. Admittedly I haven’t actually seen most of the movies he’s made in that stretch and it’s possible that there are actually some hidden gems in there, but from the outside it’s been pretty easy to write the guy off as a has been chasing former glories. But lo and behold, out of nowhere Schrader has suddenly made a movie called First Reformed that has actually gained a great deal of critical respect. Could it be a true comeback?
First Reformed follows a modern day Calvinist pastor named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) who is currently in charge of a historic church in the Albany, New York area called the First Reformed, which is about to go through its 250th anniversary. Toller was once a military chaplain and he encouraged his son to follow the family tradition and join the military but this went bad when that son was killed in action during the war in Iraq. Toller is now divorced and alcoholic but still takes some solace in preaching to his small flock. One day a woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him and asks him to talk with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who has become increasingly depressed about the state of the world. Michael is worried about his wife’s pregnancy and feels that it’s immoral to bring a child into a world that will inevitably be decimated by climate change within the child’s lifetime. Toller tries to console the man but is himself disturbed by what he’s saying, which sparks a crisis of faith in the pastor about everyone’s culpability in destroying the world.
First Reformed uses as a framing device the fact that the depressed pastor at its center is writing a diary to get out his inner spiritual turmoil. This of course harkens back to Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest… I think. Confession: I’ve never actually seen The Diary of a Country Priest. Bresson and his theological explorations have never been my cup of tea and while I’ve seen a couple of his movies that one is a blind spot. I have, on the other hand, seen the other movie that this one clearly draws influence from: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. The connection between the two is pretty clear with the film’s look at environmental despair being essentially an update of the nuclear paranoia that’s going on in Bergman’s film. There are various other bits and pieces lifted from European classics and Schrader more or less announces that he’s working within this tradition by filming the movie in the old Academy Ratio, but the movie is not necessarily as slow and meditative as some of the movies that Schrader describes as “transcendental.” This is not exactly a summer popcorn movie or anything but it isn’t the kind of art film that’s filled with pauses and lingering shots of the kind you might see in a Tsai Ming-liang movie or something.
This also shouldn’t be mistaken for a movie so indebted to the films of the past that it isn’t bringing anything of its own to the table. There are elements of the film that hue closer to what Schrader’s own interests in almost hysterical obsession to the point where the film almost shares the structure of Schrader’s breakthrough screenplay Taxi Driver. These Taxi Driver like elements are probably where I start to take issue with the movie, in part because the act of violence that the movie leads up to never quite seemed plausible to me. For one thing, the basic notion of an “eco-terrorist” owning a suicide vest strained credibility from the beginning. “Eco-terrorists” are a thing, but they are pretty different from “terrorist terroists,” they’ve been known to cause property damage and pull stunts like breaking into labs and freeing test animals but they’ve never killed anyone and it’s doubtful they would have much use for a C4 vest. Even ignoring that, I have trouble seeing the logic in Toller’s eventual plan, which seems to involve killing several innocent people to take out one easily replaceable industrialist. Deranged as he may have been, Travis Bickle at least had enough common sense to hatch a plan that actually would conceivably succeed at freeing the Jodie Foster character from her pimp. Toller is older, better educated, and seemingly less far gone than Bickle and yet his plan seems even more disconnected from reality than that crazy taxi driver’s violent outburst and it’s tough to believe that even someone in extreme spiritual tumult would hatch such a scheme.
Ignoring whether or not the development at the end quite makes sense, what are we to make of it? I think a big part of the message might be in the music that Schrader chooses to set his climax to. As Toller begins to mutilate himself with barbed wire and contemplate drinking drano Esther is singing an old American Hymn called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song that will be familiar cinephilles from its use in Night of the Hunter and its incorporation in Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit. It’s filled with lyrics like “what a blessedness, what a peace is mine,” “safe and secure from all alarms,” and “O how sweet to walk, In this pilgrim way.” In short it’s a song about finding bliss and comfort in religion, which is about the opposite of what Toller is experiencing. On the contrary, Toller finds that truly thinking through the implications of his faith and the toll of being moral in a fallen world to be anything but comforting. I don’t think the movie is suggesting that this is an experience that’s unique to religion given that the character of Michael also ended up being consumed after truly thinking through the implications of what we’re doing to the world. I don’t think the movie is trying to suggest that people should be living in blissful ignorance either but it is suggesting that people maybe shouldn’t try to bear the weight of the world on their own and in the final shot of the film Toller manages to unburden himself, even if only in his dying imagination, by throwing out the burdens of the cloth and following the carnal instincts that he’s been suppressing this whole time. Some of the chains that bind him still remain, but in this final vision there is perhaps at least some hope that remains.
**** out of Five