TIFF17: First Reformed

Paul Schrader’s new film, First Reformed, is in many ways the culmination of his work as a filmmaker and critic. While a Masters student at UCLA in the late-sixties, Schrader wrote a book called Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, in which he outlined similarities in style amongst the three masters. Noting these affinities, Schrader put forth his theory of a “transcendental style,” formal techniques which elucidate the presence of the holy or transcendental on screen. This theory was that cinema, in its portrayal of the surfaces of the material world, could nonetheless point to the presence of something beyond our material existence. This involved techniques such as the spare portrayal of the everyday, the introduction of disparity/crisis which brings about presence of the holy into the mundane, and finally a stasis where the transcendental is understood to be expressed in the aforementioned realism of the everyday.

The book was published in 1972, and yet as Schrader soon began his own film career as a screenwriter and director, achieving fame as a writer through his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) and as the director of American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and Affliction, he never put his theory of transcendental style into practice. Those films on the whole bore little resemblance to strict transcendental formalism he had outlined years earlier, with their intense psychological realism, frequent outbursts of violence, and ethnographic detail; yet, it was only a matter of time before Schrader would grapple with the implementation of his transcendental style, first through the upcoming reissuing of his 45 year old book and now in First Reformed.

First Reformed is admittedly Schrader’s attempt to work out his theory of the transcendental style in his own filmmaking.[1] The danger in any kind of summative project of this kind is that it might become too indebted to its influences, sapping the project of its vitality and leaving the viewer cold while playing a game of spot the reference. While there are certainly clear references to the above directors’ films, notably Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, as well as the work of Ingmar Bergman, I’m happy to report that First Reformed is hardly a cold stylistic exercise. Rather, it is a vital, timely exploration of the role of the transcendental in our contemporary moment, featuring a powerful performance by Ethan Hawke. This film is an unflinching portrait of religious despair and the role of faith in today’s world.

Hawke, in one of the best performances of his career, plays Father Toller, a former military chaplain whose son died in service resulting in the end of his marriage. Hawke is perfectly cast in the role. The character’s painful past has left a haunted look upon on his face, which plays off the contrast between the now aging Hawke (who turns 47 this year) and a reminder of the passion of Hawke’s characters in films such as Dead Poet’s Society or Linklater’s Before Sunrise. At the beginning of the film, Toller has been appointed the rector of the 250-year-old First Reformed Church, a nearly empty, historical parish that functions more like a museum (or Toller notes, a “gift shop”) and receives support and is kept afloat by the Abundant Life megachurch down the road. A contrast is made between Toller’s gaunt character and his near empty church and Cedric the Entertainer’s (credited as Cedric Kyles) impressive turn as the pastor of Abundant Life and its flourishing ministries. Kyles maintains a warmth in his portrayal of an generally honest, upright man who has embraced compromise for the sake of his charge.

The film opens with Toller, in voice-over, explaining that he will be writing a diary of his thoughts, which he says he will destroy after one year. This narrative framing conceit provides the viewer access to Toller’s internal life, or at least those thoughts he’s willing to articulate and admit to himself in his diary. When one of Toller’s parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to meet with her despairing husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger)—a radical environmental activist who has spent time in jail for his beliefs—Toller is confronted with Michael’s apocalyptic despair over what human beings have done to the world. This later triggers a moral dilemma for Toller as Abundant Life’s most wealthy patron is the CEO of the mega-polluting BALQ Industries, a company Michael himself has protested. When Michael’s act of despair plunges Toller deeper into both his own feelings of inadequacy and his religious calling, Toller must find that stasis of the transcendental style, the presence of the the divine in a world humanity seems hellbent on destroying.

It’s important to note that First Reformed isn’t a satire: it’s deadly serious. Like another great filmmaker who dealt with religion and loss of faith in nearly all his work, the great Ingmar Bergman, Schrader pulls no punches when portraying the problems and difficulties of belief in this modern world. Like Bergman’s protagonists, Toller confronts his spiritual turmoil on his own, and works them out in his own soul. In this way, the film wrestles with the role that religion might have in our world today, a world where the structuring realities of the pre-revolutionary America First Reformed Church was built in no longer hold sway. But Toller must contend not with that world, but the one he inhabits.

The film is also not a environmental parable. While Michael’s environmental despair is key to the film, it acts not as a bully pulpit, but as a timely expression of apocalyptic fear in our time. Michael’s complaints act as a twenty-first century version of the fears of Max von Sydow’s character in Bergman’s Winter Light, when he shares his fear of nuclear annihilation in the early 1960s film. Winter Light offers one touchstone for First Reformed that shows how Schrader is able to allude to previous transcendental works while making the film all his own.

Visually, First Reformed utilizes many of the techniques of the transcendental style. Its patient pacing, visual austerity, and distancing effects, such as the use of repetition and often framing characters in conversations straight-on rather than in shot-reverse-shot, contrasts with the intense spiritual turmoil of its protagonist. But it is in this formal framework that Schrader works his own particular interests in men’s struggle for meaning in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, as the film seems fully a piece with the films that it is referencing, while remaining solidly, personally Schrader’s.

It is rare that a film is so fully satisfying on both a formal and thematic level. While knowledge of Schrader’s past films leaves no doubt that this won’t be a happy ending, First Reformed allows for the possibility of a transcendental presence, while showing that the cost of truly opening oneself to that presence might seem madness to the dominant culture and structures of our world. It is interesting that Schrader is exploring this work so soon after his former filmmaking partner, Scorsese, produced Silence. First Reformed is similarly an impressive formal accomplishment, though on a smaller scale and budget than Scorsese’s film. The rootedness in the present world and moment felt in Schrader’s film is just as intensely personal as Scorsese’s historically set film, and likewise poses a substantial challenge to evaluating our place in human history. This makes First Reformed a striking and challenging film that hopefully even earns the director and its cast critical and award recognition, if only to spur greater discussion of an important film for our time.

9 out of 10

First Reformed (2017, USA)

Written and directed by Paul Schrader; starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer (credited as Cedric Kyles), Philip Ettinger.

[1]Note: The impetus of this project can in many respects be traced to March 2016, at a conference panel at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies which I attended, where Schrader was invited as a respondent to a panel revisiting his Transcendental Style in Film. The panel discussion was fruitful enough to prompt Schrader to return to his earlier book for a reissuing and reconsider his arguments afresh. This revisiting became the impetus for First Reformed, which Schrader confirmed in a public talk and also in conversations I had with him earlier this year in Toronto, where he first discussed the film with me.