A life in the arts can be a tenuous, reckless, and holy pilgrimage. Creating one’s best work near the end of a career, especially following an extended fallow period, should rightly cause great joy and celebration. By this measurement, the 72-year-old Paul Schrader ought to be ecstatic. In his sublime First Reformed, this child, rebel, and reverberator of the Reformed tradition has crafted a film that stands with distinction among his very best, a list that includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and my previous favorite, Affliction.
The cinematic victory of First Reformed arrives, at least in part, from Schrader’s inspired willingness to pour old wine into new wineskins. By fusing his trademark themes of alienation and obsession with the daringly methodical techniques of transcendental cinema, Schrader has crafted a dense and beguiling masterpiece. Told from the perspective of an earnestly sincere yet increasingly broken pastor of a lingering Reformed church in upstate New York, First Reformed bravely offers a painfully complex portrait of spiritual peril.
As its title suggests, First Reformed treads upon familiar terrain for Schrader, a child of the CRC and notably recalcitrant graduate of Calvin College. When we first meet the Reverend Ernst Toller (played with surprising gravity by Ethan Hawk), he is already struggling. Toller comes from a long line of military chaplains; he encouraged his son to serve, and his son’s resulting death in Iraq destroys both Toller and his marriage. By the time we get to know him, Toller is completely alone; he drinks too much, does not take care of a chronic digestive health problem, and barely functions pastoring a small, historic, and dying congregation—a nearly empty house of worship that keeps its doors open only because of the benevolence of a nearby megachurch. Members of the megachurch sardonically refer to Toller’s post as “the gift shop.” Although earnestly trying to fulfill the duties of his profession, Toller clearly suffers from major depression, what he and Kierkegaard call “this sickness unto death.” His sincere efforts to counsel a suicidal parishioner/environmental activist and his pregnant wife only beget more suffering.
Toller’s descent into seclusion and obsession evokes inevitable comparison to the iconic characterization of Travis Bickle from Schrader’s screenplay of Taxi Drive. Deep into the film, Reverend Jeffers—the exasperated head pastor of the megachurch (played straight by Cedric the Entertainer)—worries about the reclusive behavior of his increasingly morose subordinate. In an attempt to shake Toller out of his dark, spiritualized obsession with climate change, Jeffers rebukes him, stating, “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden.” Toller can’t hear it, of course. His insistence to single-handedly carry the sins of world’s environmental degradation alienates him from those who might help. Indeed, Toller’s passion for the just stewardship of the earth spirals from a noble cause to dark obsession. Like Travis Bickle, Toller’s pursuit of a warped reckoning increasingly edges him toward violence.
Beyond the influences of Schrader’s own work, First Reformed also pays thematic homage to other great films about struggling men of the cloth. Indeed, the plot of Schrader’s recent effort shares many similarities with Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light and Robert Bresson’s A Diary of a Country Priest. All three films depict a depressed priest plagued with existential doubts struggling to serve dying congregations; similar to First Reformed, the protagonists in Winter Light and A Diary of a Country Priest struggle to minister to suicidal parishioners; in all three films, the ministers contemplate inappropriate relationships with the suicidal men’s vulnerable wives. In both Winter Light and First Reformed, the suicidal men obsess over the possibility of environmental Armageddon. Like Bresson’s unnamed Priest, Toller also drinks too much, keeps a diary, and suffers from a severe and untreated intestinal affliction. This flurry of similarities might lead one to label First Reformed as a derivative work, but this understandable conclusion neglects the primacy of Schrader’s contribution to the master-narrative. A case can be made that the figure of a struggling minister belongs to the ages. Moreover, while self-consciously indebted to Bergman and Bresson, Schrader’s remarkable effort adds texture and complexity to these earlier stories, increasing the visceral impact of an already harrowing crisis of faith.
Part of the reason First Reformed stands so proudly on its own stems from Schrader’s willingness to embrace the techniques of what he coined “the transcendental style of film.” From an academic point of view, this is old terrain for the filmmaker; while a still young artist, Schrader literally wrote the book on this style of filmmaking. Favored by filmmakers such as Yasajiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer, the transcendental cinema involves methodical pacing, long stationary shots, little dialogue, and limited action. When used properly, this focus on the “everyday” eventually leads the viewer to what Schrader calls “disparity,” an overpowering, irrational, and magical realm that stands in stark contrast to the repetitive, mundane world. By its completion, the transcendental style of film eventually reaches “stasis,” a return to the “everyday,” but with a renewed purpose. The world may appear as it did, but the viewer now understands that a transcendent realm lies just beneath the realistic surface of life’s veneer. As a practitioner, Schrader ironically never appropriated these beloved techniques into his own filmmaking. While obviously astute and affectionate towards this meditative genre, he stated in an interview that “I’m just too intoxicated with action, empathy, sex, and violence, and those elements aren’t in the transcendental tool kit.” This changed with First Reformed.
First Reformed’s careful adherence to the three stages of transcendental style powerfully enhances the theological underpinnings of the story. In his depiction of the “everyday,” Schrader crafts a series of methodically elongated shots lightly enhanced by minimalistic dialogue and Brian Williams’ muted score. Actors rarely raise their voices or make a fuss. Deep feelings reveal themselves through clenched smiles or restrained grimaces. These deliberative understatements yield the impression that each character sits upon an immense iceberg; we only see the pristinely exposed surface, but so much more lurks below. When, through his monotone voice-over narration from his prayer journal, Toller admonishes himself for his sinful pride, the audience catches a glimpse into the fraught despair that underscores his entire existence. “If only I could pray,” he laments in his journal. Even though the journal functions an attempt at prayer, Toller seems too far gone to listen for God’s grace. Far from boring cinematic drudgery, the methodical pacing and loaded stillness of Schrader’s transcendental style succeeds in leading viewers through a careful liturgy of longing. It hits close to home. As someone who has lived among the descendants of Dutch Reformed for two decades—Toller’s people, Schrader’s people—I could not help but recognize the hidden signs of reserved self-flagellation, the fear of not living up to cultural expectations of purity and prosperity, the Dutch fronts, and the perversion of total depravity to the exclusion of redemption.
Mercifully, First Reformed eventually exits the wrenchingly familiar “everyday” and veers into Act Two of the transcendental style, the magical realm Schrader calls “disparity.” Events transpire that suggest the existence of celestial realm released from the daunting and haunting burdens of this worldly life. Attempts to describe too much of Schrader’s dive into an Aleph/astral-projection montage will likely spoil the journey. Suffice to say, he pulls it off. Whether a glimpse of the Kingdom or the last firing of synapses from Toller’s increasingly addled brain, we do not know for sure. The questions raised form their own mesmeric litany of wonder, tribulation, and joy.
Act Three of First Reformed, the return to “stasis,” may be even more beguiling, disturbing, and wonderful. Like Travis Bickle before him, Toller enters a diseased mental state that makes him both willingly self-sacrificial and menacingly violent. I personally go back and forth on what to make of the film’s final, excruciating moments. (If you want a spoiler-filled interpretation of the ending written from the perspective of a Reformed pastor, check out Jeff Munroe’s analysis from Think Christian.) Without divulging too much, I can say this: Schrader’s Calvinist upbringing appears front and center; it coalesces with his affection for the transcendental style. The climactic synthesis of style and religiosity took me to places I was not prepared to go.
As a young filmmaker, Schrader described his West Michigan upbringing in disparaging terms, implying the religious orthodoxy of the culture was oppressive, backward, and out of touch with the contemporary world. And subsequent films like American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Hardcore—a film set in Grand Rapids that the writer/director recently referred to as “an act of juvenilia—certainly did not ingratiate Schrader to his more socially conservative former brethren. Over the years, however, the relationship has softened. His alma mater has invited him back numerous times; Schrader even screened First Reformed at Calvin College Seminary before its major release. Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Schrader speak at a screening of another film in Grand Rapids. During the Q&A session, an audience member asked the Grand Rapids native what impact attending Calvin College had on his life and work. After humorously recalling his strong impulse to escape the place “like a bullet out of gun,” Schrader admitted that he was now grateful for his immersion in the culture of the Dutch Reformed tradition. He described Calvin College as an immutable brick wall that he recklessly threw himself against. Schrader then graciously admitted, “I didn’t know it at the time, but the worst thing that can happen to a young revolutionary would be to have that brick wall crumble.”
Perhaps the culmination of a great artist’s career, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed stands as a masterpiece of form, content, and faith. By staring boldly into the void of doubt and finding hope, this fiercely independent and now completely mature artist has added his own beautiful masonry to that impressive brick wall that absorbed his youthful blows, frustrated his nonconformist tendencies, and gave him something strong to lean against.