Hidden Gems: First Reformed
By Kyle Lee
April 22, 2019
First Reformed nabbed Paul Schrader his first Academy Award nomination this year, for Best Original Screenplay. It was joyous and long overdue recognition for us film fans, and astounding to think that his scripts for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction, and Bringing Out the Dead weren’t deemed worthy by the Academy. Now all of those but Affliction were from his long and fruitful relationship with Martin Scorsese, but Schrader is and has been an accomplished director in his own right as well. First Reformed deserves mention alongside his very best work as a director.
Schrader doesn’t make easy to digest movies. He makes movies that challenge and confront us. His movies have deep themes running through them, often tying in some way back to his strict religious upbringing and his struggle with spirituality once he reached adulthood. He’s also had a career long obsession with, uh, well, obsession. His newest main character, the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) has lost his way. Not obsessed in the beginning of the film, but those that have lost their way often find it again once they find something to be passionate about. A former military chaplain, Toller convinced his son to sign up for the military as well, and within 6 months his son was dead in Iraq. He and his wife both blamed him for what happened, and divorced. He now spends his nights alone, drinking various liquors while he ignores the pain in his stomach and the fact that he’s peeing blood. During the day he gives tours of his upstate New York church, whose 250th anniversary is coming up soon. On Sundays he delivers his sermons to literally a handful of people.
Among those in the crowd are the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary one day asks Rev. Toller if he will counsel Michael, an environmental activist who wants Mary to abort their baby because he morally opposes bringing life into this world ravaged by chemical dumping and climate change. Michael arouses in Toller the kind of spiritual purpose he had previously lost. Toller becomes obsessed with the Christian notion of stewardship, the belief that God gave us dominion over the world and made it our responsibility to take care of it, something that we are desperately failing at and for which we will surely be punished by Him.
Toller has to also contend with the local megachurch, which subsidizes his own church. The megachurch is run by Rev. Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer), whom Toller goes to see frequently and who acts as a sounding board for Toller, but who isn’t with him on his newfound passion. Jeffers would rather placate the big donors like local chemical company CEO’s, or the mayor/governor, or whomever. Schrader does something interesting here showing two good men both acting on their faith, but one being more flexible to the times, and the other acting on his newfound fundamentalism. Neither is shown to be right or wrong. I mean, we obviously don’t care for Jeffers and are on Toller’s side, but not in a good/bad way, Jeffers is a good man, it’s just that this is Toller’s story.
We go through much of the action while hearing Toller’s narration from a journal he’s decided to keep. Schrader uses the conceit of the journal just like he did in Taxi Driver, letting us in to the inner monologue of our protagonist, adding weight and interest to scenes that may not have had it otherwise. We know the Reverend’s thoughts and feelings, so we know and care why he’s acting the way he is. It’s a brilliant use of narration, something too many writers use as a crutch to cover up for bad storytelling but Schrader uses to deepen his characters.
Visually Schrader has said he drew much inspiration from formalists like Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Robert Bresson. This ties back to a book Schrader wrote when he was still a film critic, 1972’s Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, which was reissued around the release of First Reformed. Schrader has said those filmmaker’s sparse, contemplative visuals and storytelling were revelations to him. He’s said that those masters influenced him because “I sensed a bridge between the spirituality I was raised with and the ‘profane’ cinema I loved. And it was a bridge of STYLE not content. Church people had been using movies since they first moved to illustrate religious beliefs, but this was something different. The convergence of spirituality and cinema would occur in style not content. In the How, not the What.”
Schrader tries his best to reach moments of transcendence and while it won’t work for everyone, it did for me. I’ll admit that it took me a second viewing because the ending of the movie is unexpected, beautiful, and not immediately satisfying. Why does Toller do the things he does? Does he even do them? Is Toller alive at the end of the movie? The movie ends on a couple of notes of wordless transcendence and sometimes you have to be in the right head space for such an unconventionally bold choice from a filmmaker.
Paul Schrader has always been an interesting filmmaker. His terrific gritty first film, Blue Collar, had great central work from stars Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor in a story of a group of blue collar workers planning to rob their employer. He followed it up with Hardcore, about George C. Scott playing detective and looking for the daughter who went missing, only to turn up in a porno. Then there was American Gigolo, with Richard Gere’s star making turn. Then he made his masterpiece, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. One of the most gorgeous movies ever made and a bold narrative that mixes biography of Japanese author Yukio Mishima with adaptation of some of his writing to further highlight aspects of his personality. Mishima is still Schrader’s magnum opus if you ask me, but First Reformed deserves mention alongside it. From the controlled visuals to the best work of Ethan Hawke’s great career, this Hidden Gem deserves to be revisited and studied just like the films of the masters Schrader feels himself indebted to.