Paul Schrader, director and writer
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Toller), Amanda Seyfried (Mary), Cedric Kyles (Pastor Jeffers), Victoria Hill (Esther), Philip Ettinger (Michael)
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a genuine comeback film, which not only shows the writer/filmmaker back to the height of his powers but also evokes his spiritual roots. What Toller, the minister played convincingly by Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, encounters is a crisis of faith, which provokes him to consider acting violently for what he perceives to be a just cause. Prompted by meeting Mary and Michael, a young couple in his church who are environmental activists experiencing difficulties in their marriage, Toller has to look closely at who he is and what he genuinely believes in. First Reformed is a quietly compelling story, which plays out with an authenticity that we haven’t seen in a Schrader drama in decades.
Schrader was raised in the Calvinist Reformed Church, a severe Protestant faith, which believes in original sin and advocates for a strict—nearly stark–private life. The Calvinist Church deems going to film abhorrent and, indeed, Schrader didn’t see a movie until he was 17. Once he did see films, though, he was smitten—which probably caused him a lot of anxiety and severe self-examination. After graduating Calvin College, he got his Masters at UCLA film school, where he wrote Transcendental Style in Cinema: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, an excellent book, which examined how three master filmmakers—one Buddhist, one Catholic and one Lutheran–were able to create masterpieces of spiritual cinema.
Schrader’s scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are recognized masterworks, with their groundbreaking and nearly toxic mix of violence and spirituality. Without the benefit of having Martin Scorsese as director, Schrader’s own efforts haven’t been as successful, but American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters in particular have deeply spiritual elements intermixed with episodes of violence and extreme sexuality.
After years in the wilderness, with films like The Exorcist prequel Dominion, the Lindsay Lohan erotic thriller The Canyons and the concentration camp melodrama Adam Resurrected, Schrader has surprised everyone with First Reformed. Clearly influenced by Robert Bresson, the intensely somber director of Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket, he has worked with Hawke to create a minister, whose strong convictions are undermined when confronted with a tragic situation.
The film is shot like a Bresson classic, with the characters in mid-frame, distanced from immediate identification with each other or the audience. There is no music and the actors are encouraged to be impassive. Yet the effect is often passionate, showing that real feelings come out without showy prompting or melodramatic effects.
Mary, a young Churchgoer, asks Toller to speak to her husband Michael, who is upset about the world. It emerges that Michael has asked Mary to abort their baby because he sees the world being destroyed and doesn’t want to a raise a child in it. Toller reveals to Michael that his marriage broke up when his son died in the Middle East after he encouraged the boy to go there. The two debate issues at great length and agree to meet the next day but when Toller arrives, he finds Michael is dead, a suicide.
Over the next few weeks, Mary and Toller grow closer as he begins to embrace ecological activism while helping her deal with grief. Toller, who is physically ill with a difficult stomach disorder, realizes that the Church’s biggest supporter for its special 250th anniversary celebration is an exploiter of natural resources and a global profiteer. Michael had considered going out of his life as a suicide bomber. Now, Toller has to work through his burgeoning political convictions, interest in Mary and physical crisis. What should he do?
Schrader’s resolution to Toller’s conflicts is deeply romantic and will likely strike a chord with admirers of his and Bresson’s work. First Reformed takes on a lot of issues and doesn’t resolve them all. But it is a deeply affecting work held together by a charismatic performance by Ethan Hawke. This is a film well worth seeing.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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