It is essential to the success of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed that both his convictions and his doubts suffuse it to the core. Not only about religion, mind you, because the film is also positively tormented with dread and anxiety about Schrader’s personal God: cinema, the medium which he has studied, scrutinized, and analyzed for decades and bestowed with both the authority of holy writ and the uncertainty of a doubtful sinner, unsure of his abilities, begging for admittance into the ecclesiastical cinematic canon and fearing that he just doesn’t measure up. For decades, Schrader has not only been the sharpest and most penitent student of cinema but a truly sacrilegious, ill-tempered devotee to his own id, a man who, even to his film’s detriment, would sustain his outsider-art tempestuousness simply to remain in a wandering state of search, looking for something – maybe anything – which clarified, or stirred the waters of his soul, and which the cinema around him was not providing.
Yet in First Reformed, one finally senses a kind of acceptance, even a restfulness. But crucially and blessedly, not a sedimentation, or even a clarification. Schrader is still clearly on the hunt for an answer he doesn’t have; his search is merely less restless, albeit no less uneasy, no less apprehensive about the possibility of true existential comfort in a deeply inharmonious world. Crystallizing his internal agitation into something manageable for the first time in decades, probably since his screenplay for the truly antinomian Bringing Out the Dead, First Reformed still explores the brackish, murky waters of a man wracked by contradiction and simultaneously fascinated and tortured by paradox. First Reformed is a film gifted with and tormented by an ascetic’s restraint, a Baptist minister’s undying conviction, and a heretic’s anarchic disobedience, all while accruing the potency of a divine spirit, which in this case suggests both the film’s feverishness and its ghostly, diaphanous half-presence, like a film tenuously touching our own world but which might evaporate or erode on a moment’s notice. You can feel it simultaneously breathing its last breaths, writing its will and testament with all the wisdom it acquired over its life, and spontaneously bursting out into a new, uncertain existence with every moment. It’s both a lament and a provocation.
Above all, though, it clearly bears the fruit of a director reborn, phoenix-like, after decades of increasingly strained adventures in spirited but frequently cloying and usually morally dubious showboating. Despite boasting the pallor of the grave, First Reformed rhymes with decades of soul-bearing cinema, not only paying tribute to the masters but channeling them and galvanizing them into a truly molten core that feels positively alive, its mind every-curious. Mobilizing the classical Academy ratio for its austere severity more than its gregarious warmth, the film suggests a truly, violently controlled statue on first blush, but much like protagonist Toller (Ethan Hawke), its ostensible grace under pressure and collected demeanor belie a consciousness investigation of guilt and self-doubt, a consciousness eternally in motion.
Protagonist Toller borrows a playwright’s name and certainly sounds like he could center a film by Schrader’s idol Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Hawke bestows – or curses – the character with all the solitudinous angst to earn the comparison, plumbing the depths of personal torment with an ice-cold magnetism. Toller is the reverend of a Dutch Reformist Church in Upstate New York which bestows the film with its title, and on the eve of its 250th anniversary, the congregation is paltry, an obvious phantom of its former self, and we quickly realize that the church is more active as a tourist destination for moonlighting secular types than a genuine house of the soul. Not only does this make Toller a shepherd without a flock, but it draws him to the plight of married couple Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger), the former of whom is concerned about her husband. Michael, a fervent and devout environmentalist who pursues his cause with righteous fervor, has recently been released from a prison in Canada for protesting, and his wife’s pregnancy has wracked his own mind with anxieties, and fear for his soul, about bringing a child into a rapidly collapsing, depleted world.
Throughout the film, Mary and Toller will converse on subjects far and wide, but although he wears the protective grimace of learned compassion and clarity, Toller’s own psyche is obviously pierced by Michael’s roving abjection, a sensibility the film finds copious formal and thematic parallels for without ever fossilizing into an overly-belabored schema for how to manifest pure cinematic oppressiveness. Easy stuff it isn’t, and one feels the creases of an unmoored consciousness, the lines and wrinkles of Hawke’s face festering with curiosity, growing on the film as well.
Admittedly, Schrader’s screenplay stacks the metaphorical deck in favor of itself, loading the film with other signifiers of drought and spiritual and physical malnourishment. Toller’s own church is wounded and brittle, a hollow facsimile of its old self, less a metaphor for than a poetic expression of Toller’s rotting body and his mortal concerns about the soul of the world around him. A seemingly unchecked physical disease, a mimetic for the rot of the earth, the drying up of the soul, is perhaps a trademark of Schrader’s typically overdetermined imagination. But his film never rests on these allusions, as though they seal the deal and excuse Schrader from the genuine work of cinematic soul-bearing. Although the style harkens back to the classics – one senses Schrader stitching the line between his own screenplay for Taxi Driver and his obsession over Bergman’s Winter Light and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest – First Reformed depicts a man, Schrader and protagonist Ernst Toller alike, foraging for renewed purpose, connecting dots but also opening lesions and exposing wounds.
At one point, Toller instructs Michael on the prophetic wager of holding multiple contradictory truths in suspension at once, and the film takes his advice, sketching a path forward which it proceeds to wonderfully imperil. As the film progresses, for instance, Toller’s plight increasingly refracts prismatically, the film intimating that Toller is at once a lost soul, a potential prophet, and a perhaps delusory fabulist, an insular voice disembodied from the world around him, in search of self-actualization feverishly searching for wider thematic resonances to tether to his own soul.
But more excited about the possibilities of spiritual nutriment and salvation Toller does become, and the film clearly follows suit. Although this fiercely meditative film is bruised by horrors of the soul, Toller’s renewed passion in the film’s second-half catalyzes not only a mental awakening but a formal resurrection on the part of the film, signaled in the subtle but conscious rousing of its formal palate. Whereas the camera once cryptically observed a dilapidated world, Schrader’s film slowly begins to move, reinvigorated by the possibility of spiritual nourishment. But at what tempo, or to what ends, we do not know. But is Schrader’s camera animating Toller to renewed moral clarity and purpose? Tracking the beaten-down, haunted, battered psyche with more verve, mocking us with Toller’s hopelessness in spite of his sudden momentum? Quavering with questions in need of answers the film cannot fulfill? Or is the camera simply scrimming the toxins of the earth away like a 17th century Travis Bickle trapped in the 21st?
Which is to say: First Reformed’s attitude toward Toller is remarkably ambivalent. His film empathizes with Toller’s plight yet captures undertows of self-flagellating gloom, of a man appointing himself the misshapen savior of an appalling human existence. When a tragedy strikes mid-film, Toller seems born anew, reincarnated or resurrected, a sense of purpose reignited that both fulfills and punishes his already aimless mind all the more so. It guides him toward political salvation and a harmony of ethics, morals, and purpose. A harmony, the film intimates, which other characters may not have the privilege to avoid, namely Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who has to manage his moral and ethical convictions with the input of earth-destroying donors like Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), who tacitly suggests that Toller’s vision may be a way of withdrawing from a world even as he is reaching out to others who he feels need him.
To this extent, the film abounds in irony and paradox, with the corporatized megachurch which attends to most of the community named Abundant Life, the name contrapuntally mocking both First Reform’s and Toller’s essential miasma and melancholy. Concurrently, though, Abundant Life ironically exposes the desolation of life in a modern world where abundancy takes the form of spillover costs for the earth and an egregiously hollow, sanitized church cafeteria devoid of personality, somehow the most ruined location in an upstate NY town that seems to have been pillaged of life long before Toller’s own existential crisis.
Either way, Michael’s questions deliriously shock not only Toller into life but the film into an alternative formal idiom, but the “either way” is very much the point: even the film cannot clarify on what grounds its camera moves, what moral questions provoke it and stir its deepest convictions. To some extent, Schrader’s camera seems in search of that rarest of beasts: cinematic transcendence, the subject of his most famous treatise. But his film also deepens and even critiques that aim in its justifiably infamous finale, where the camera finally, metaphorically, and possibly parodically stokes into a whirlwind, pirouetting around Toller in an impish apex that signals both the heights of his achievement and the lows of his self-intoxication, the depths of his unbounded self-abnegation. Is this transcendence, or a cruel mockery of the idea of spiritual absolution? It’s ascension at once as cosmic revelation and comic caricature of a cultish obsessive.
I worry personally that viewers will pacify this ending, losing themselves by ensconcing the film’s conclusion in one of the oldest and least generative binaries in fiction –reality, ie “what really happens”, vs psychological fiction, a too-easy foray into Toller’s mind which only clarifies “real” as the other side of a binary. Instead, what First Reformed’s conclusion suggests is less a descent into ambiguity or an exorcising of personal demons than an opening-up of interpretive possibility, a genuine engagement with the visual, sensational, and perceptual twitches, quivers, and shakes which percolate beneath stillness and solemnity and turn even the most placid moment into a volcano of contradictory emotions ready to erupt. If the film often accrues the aura of a funeral, it’s meaning are never final nor fatal.
This final moment is at once the film’s summation and its inversion, a wry wrinkle in a constantly self-questioning aggregate that both anoints itself as a successor to an art cinema throne and pugnaciously questions its own status atop that summit, egotistically fulfilling its position in the art cinema canon while teasing out the tensions in its own astonishingly tormented psychological architecture. Most of all, the conclusion questions the possible egocentrism of the belief in one’s self-anointed martyrdom, pondering whether sacrificing oneself to achieve some transcendental escape from a corrupt and corroded land absolves one of sifting through the debris for the shards of possibility that remain. First Reformed is obviously aware of the narcotic capacities of cinema, religion, and any form of transcendence alike, but it fashions itself at once as a testament to that transcendence and an inquiry of it, a many-headed hydra at war with itself and dedicated to exposing the failures in its own arguments. It’s a worshipful film, then, but one where any devotion is deeply contaminated with a skepticism coursing through its veins. It explores in its final moment not necessarily any psychological escape from reality but an intimate awareness of how many realities are contained within reality, how many paths a film may travel to get there, and how wonderfully inconclusive even this conclusion is, how many new aesthetic realms it as a film may still traverse.
Although human mortality and classical European cinema haunt almost every shot of this film, this sense of curiosity keeps the film from feeling like a fetish object for Schrader, a totem to his cinematic might or to the glory of dead masters, a cantankerously austere relic bemoaning an era of lesser entertainment. Instead, First Reformed borrows a thriller’s pugnacious texture. It crystallizes a corrosive rambunctiousness, a bilious, soul-churning unease that hard-sears the harsh austerity. An austerity that is in turn coupled to a teasing, even winking absurdism that is as shattering as anything in the film, as capable of curdling the blood and rattling the psyche as any horror film and as nasty-minded as the darkest night. On first blush, First Reformed could pass as a parody of art-film austerity, but within this processional nucleus, Schrader discharges such psychic energy – and even finds energy within and because of a truly sickly emotional torpor – through ruminatively aware resting spaces that aren’t really resting spaces at all. Within ostensible lethargy, the film recalibrates our consciousness, attunes us toward more contemplative quandaries and fluctuations of ostensibly minute energies. Within ritual, repetition, routine, serenity, and tranquility, the film exposes the emotional terror of searching for a true clarity that constantly eludes you.
Fittingly, it follows the film’s other implosion of the aesthetic sublime, beyond the ending, is where Toller and Mary effuse an entire mental galaxy out of a particularly sickly, malarial looking room. The scene is a mimetic for transcendence in its most unrestrained caliber, a sheer portrait of togetherness and the human will. If the galaxy evokes worlds untraveled, the film reminds us that travel is not exclusively a question of physical movement; throughout, First Reformed quakes with subtle vitality, finding within ostensible strandedness a phenomenal sense of emotional and mental itinerancy, a truly seismic turmoil all the more brutal for how subterranean it is. Far more than some intertextual funhouse mirror asking us to see Schrader’s influences and play a game of catch the cinematic reference, First Reformed is instead a fount of potential energy waiting to be unleashed on an unknown, unclarified source; characteristically ravaged but uncharacteristically pensive for the usually maddened filmmaker, it imagines modernity as both spent force and a subterranean rumble searching for a fissure to rupture forth from