Paul Schrader's First Reformed--his twenty-third directing job--is a tiny feature shot around Brooklyn and Queens in only twenty days, on a budget of roughly three and a half million dollars. Arguably his best work to date--or if not his best then somewhere up there.
Ethan Hawke is Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain assigned to run a tourist landmark, the First Reformed, a nearly two hundred and fifty year old Dutch Reformed church somewhere in New England (actually the Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston, Queens, NY) and right off Schrader transfixes the film's tone with our first glimpse of the church: squat white clapboard against bleak sky, spike of a belltower soaring up like an impalement stake, a deliberately sacrilegious (Sacred?) affront to God in His heaven.
Toller is a practicing alcoholic afflicted with cancer struggling with his faith (mainly guilt feelings from advising his son to enlist in the Iraq War, where he was killed). Critics have noted the way Schrader has grafted the diary-scribbling clergyman (alienated, dying) in Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest to the congregation and church in Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (apocalyptically depressed, even suicidal) but I'd throw in the kamikaze bravado of Taxi Driver the repressed hysteria of Ikiru the overwhelming dread of I Live in Fear.
Surrounding Toller are characters designed to complement and clash with his crumbling sense of self: his boss Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles aka Cedric the Entertainer) who runs the Abundant Life megachurch, the real owner of First Reformed; Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) the brutish local industrialist who underwrites both Abundant Life and First Reformed's upcoming 250th anniversary; and Toller's estranged wife Esther (Victoria Hill) who constantly worries about Toller's state of mental and physical health.
Not directly involved but brought to Toller's attention are Michael (Philip Ettinger) an environmental activist father-to-be agonizing over the increasingly polluted world he's introducing his child into; and Mary (Amanda Seyfried) Michael's beautiful hugely pregnant wife.
Toller may feel lost but there are folks ready and willing to guide him: Paster Jeffers wants him to introduce Balq at the church's anniversary; Balq wants him to avoid controversy (Toller in giving the oration at a recent funeral had unwittingly involved himself in a political protest)--particularly the issue of Balq's company contaminating nearby rivers (as Toller eventually learns, Michael was an avid chronicler of Balq's corporate activities). Esther wants Toller to take better care of himself, if not actually take her back to care for him (as with her namesake in the Bible, Esther struggles to catch her husband's attention).
Michael (After the warrior-angel?) is one of the few people who don't directly pressure Toller; Toller instead finds himself more and more compelled to respond to Michael's anguish. Mary--who cannot be more obviously named--doesn't do anything doesn't need to; her character is immaculately conceived, in a state of (slightly smudged) grace, a figure for Toller to reach out to, possibly desire. Toller I suspect is named after a left-wing playwright who fled the Nazis, came to America, struggled, found little success, ultimately (and significantly) killed himself.
Schrader unfolds his spare elegant little tale in the manner of what he has dubbed the Transcendental Style--wrote a book on the subject along the way--evoking the camera moves color palettes (mostly black, white, various shades of gray) emotional tones of admired filmmakers (the aforementioned Bresson and Bergman, with Carl Th. Dreyer thrown in for good measure). Call the man a stubborn anachronism, a filmmaker who in the face of this generation's handheld cameras and smash-n-grab editing insists on an ascetic's aesthetics--a list of carefully chosen details that if shuffled often enough and pondered long enough will hopefully achieve transcendence.
A doomed quest--Schrader (going by the principles outlined in his book) never really expects to succeed, though he does hope to leave behind the record of an interesting attempt. The style itself is a cramped style that holds the audience in a claustrophobic vice, a style that despite the often chill clear air visible onscreen (Bergman's Winter Light being particularly adept at capturing this elusive detail) leaves you struggling for breath. More, Schrader is trapped trying to find his way among the feet of giants and knows it; there's the risk when evoking Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light that the viewer's thoughts will linger on those older more venerated titles, forsaking his own.
Salvation comes I submit in the form of the third filmmaker in Schrader's pantheon, Ozu (the full title of his book on the subject: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer). Where Dreyer is hardly a barrel of laughs and Bresson rarely if ever cracks a smile* Ozu achieves transcendence despite or because of an understated homegrown humor. The kids in I Was Born But..., the actors' shenanigans in Floating Weeds both original and color remake--even Tokyo Story has its comic moments, Ozu learning his lesson from Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow, that comic rigor and pacing are the best means of easing past an audience's guard, to better drive home the tragic bodkin.
*(When the priest in Diary shares a motorbike ride with a new acquaintance, the delight in speed and wind and sunshine is unique in an otherwise dour film, is perhaps unique in all of Bresson's cinema)
Schrader in turn takes his cue from Ozu, draws on pulpier sources (his own Taxi Driver for one) goes for the deadpan gag--and whaddaya know, Transcendental Style works just fine earning gasps and a few laughs. Abundant Life's offices hum with corporate activity, and one would be hardpressed to point out any differences from a large insurance firm; at the funeral Toller has the Abundant Life choir (Esther directing) sing Neil Young's "Who's Gonna Stand Up?" the militant words clashing joyfully with the doleful expressions. Toller cannot resist a glass of scotch but--to ease his bellyache--tops the drink with pepto-bismol; the sight of bright-pink syrup seeping into deep oaken brown (Lichtenstein seeping into Wyeth) is both hilarious and unnerving.
While First Reformed fills up with folks waiting for Toller to begin celebrations the priest has his Armor of God strapped on trying to muster the courage to step out; he looks out the window and--it's Ethan Hawke's finest moment, when the dramatized dichotomy of environmental activism vs. corporate interest, collaboration vs. resistance, good vs. evil is suddenly thrown into question, as if someone had slapped Travis Bickle across the face yelled in his ear "What the fuck do you think you're doing?!" It's Schrader attempting to transcend even the old-school Style he has admired and emulated for not years but decades--for nearly all his life--realizing that even Godard's stripped-down quip ("all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl") isn't quite stripped-down enough; sometimes you need just a gun, sometimes just a girl. The results may still not totally work but they don't have to; personally I liked them fine. And it's a fascinating fascinating attempt.
First published in Businessworld 8.24.18