Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is about the distractions we wrap ourselves in. We become absorbed in the acquisition of intellect, surrender to a higher power, or worship our commitment to another person and fall in love. But in Schrader’s world, these once magical methods of filling that hollow feeling of desolation can only subsist for so long, before our internal gratitude battery reaches 0% and we’re asked to confront clinical truths that leave us stranded, feeling like a fraud, and incapable of fitting in anywhere, leaving every hour to become the darkest hour. That’s more or less the narrative of every Paul Schrader film since he wrote Taxi Driver over four decades ago. His success has varied wildly since but I have no hesitation in calling First Reformed one of Schrader’s best films, in what frequently registers as a summation of the writer/director’s preoccupations and anxieties.
Joining the despondent ranks of Travis Bickle, Julian Kaye, Yukio Mishima, and Frank Pierce is Father Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). The earnest toiler, as it were, presides over a sparse congregation situated in the outskirts of New York City called First Reformed. The venue, now relegated to a tourist spot that serves as part of a larger megachurch, is in the midst of renovations with its sestercentennial approaching – a leak in the men’s bathroom and a broken organ are among Toller’s concerns as he prepares for the event. He’s the kind of man who prefers to handle the situation by himself, not one to bother others; we learn a lot about him through his refusal to ask for aide. Yet the shadow of something more pressing and transcendental looms overhead, as we overhear through the numerous passages of narration that Toller will proceed with writing in a journal daily for a year’s time before destroying the record and setting it aflame. The diary of this country priest, with its pages penned typically at candlelight with a bottle of cognac within arms reach, will be filled with woe.
Following one of Toller’s sermons, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) requests his services in speaking with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Recently incarcerated for what we soon discover was a form of eco-terrorism, Michael spills his concerns to the man of the cloth, expressing anxiety over bringing a new life (Mary is pregnant) to a world where the future is finite and full of suffering. The discussion is masterfully composed, as Schrader relies on a classic shot/reverse shot to mirror the escalating tension in their tête-à-tête. It’s a persuasive exchange, where Michael’s grim fatalism wears away at Toller’s already rickety constitution, as the priest submits to ascribing to the man’s beliefs even if he doesn’t (initially) share his despair.
With a 250-year anniversary, Toller’s ailing health, and the grim revelations that come with Toller’s acquaintanceship with Michael and Mary, a tactile sense of encroaching doom becomes increasingly prevalent. Toller’s fatigue with attempting to employ an ethical and virtuous life comes under strain, especially as he begins to learn the upcoming sestercentennial is co-sponsored by a commercial entity responsible for the kind of environmental catastrophes that Michael advocated against. The benevolent presidential candidate of Taxi Driver is now replaced by its modern equivalent: the faceless corporate enterprise that publicizes its philanthropy to its community while also destroying it.
The layers of Schrader’s scripting ought not be taken for granted. The filmmaker goes to great and subtle lengths to modulate his essential narrative, grounding it within an antiquated house of spirituality that speaks to the concerns of the present in vital and remarkable ways. It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Ethan Hawke, with his disheveled and sunken features, as Toller. For an actor who so frequently collaborates with Richard Linklater, one begins to associate him with the passage of time itself. When he remarks to Michael, with a distraught and moving sigh, that he once remembered when everything was ahead of him, it beckons a kind of cinematic source memory that informs numerous passages of First Reformed. Compounded with Schrader’s litany of influences (the film most directly recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Ordet, though numerous portions recall Ozu and Bresson), First Reformed becomes a capsule of decades of cinematic language, funneled through a singular vision that’s both timely and timeless. The more I think about it, the more First Reformed begins to feel like Schrader’s absolute best.