First Reformed Review
Considering how he’s one of the most well known screenwriters that emerged from the New Hollywood era, it’s been alarming how Paul Schrader has frequently found his unmistakable voice erased from his recent output. 2013’s The Canyons felt more like a tiresome work from screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis than it did a typical Schrader film, while his follow-up, 2014’s Dying of the Light, was taken out of his hands and re-edited by the studio - proving he had fallen from grace to the extent that even those funding his films weren’t treating his works with the reverence he was once afforded.
First Reformed feels like the work of a reinvigorated filmmaker, who has repurposed his older thematic obsessions for the politically turbulent moment in time we’re living through. Other critics (and, to a certain extent, Schrader himself) have been fast to label it a spiritual successor to Taxi Driver, which isn’t entirely untrue - both films are, in many ways, about men alienated because their beliefs are being compromised by the politics of their respective eras. But that’s where the broad similarities end; First Reformed is the closest Schrader has got to successfully capturing the dark spirit of Ingmar Bergman, a recurrent influence who shared similar preoccupations with the various contradictions inherent within religion. Schrader’s latest isn’t the new Taxi Driver, so much as it is a 21st century update of Bergman’s largely overlooked 1963 effort Winter Light.
Ethan Hawke stars as Toller, a protestant pastor who is going through numerous life crises. He’s still reeling from the fallout from the death of his son, who he sent off to war in Iraq, and the implosion of his marriage following that. His own health is deteriorating rapidly, his position as the head of the titular First Reformed church is widely mocked (it’s known locally for being more of a “gift shop” than a thriving place of worship), and his own beliefs are thrown into question when he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Her husband is suffering from an intense depression due to the radical environmentalist worldview he subscribes to - and, when Toller starts hearing more about this worldview after agreeing to counsel him, slowly discovers that his position in the church is compromised by this knowledge.
If First Reformed were to be compared to any of Schrader’s collaborations with Martin Scorsese, it’s slightly odd that the consensus choice seems to be Taxi Driver, as opposed to The Last Temptation of Christ. That controversial effort laid bare the religious themes that had bubbled under the surface in the works of the two filmmakers, causing mass outrage at the time of release, despite it being a soulful effort that grapples with the very idea of sin, and how it has caused contradictory beliefs in those who subscribe to theology.
This film is admittedly more of an affront on the viewer, due to how it doesn’t shy away from the impending bleakness that climate change will likely cause - and how vested interests in politics have left us all powerless to do anything about it. Using climate change as the jumping off point for a greater discussion about the tortured relationship between religious folk and sins we are blind to is liable to cause intense discussions, especially across the Atlantic, where it remains the subject of a turbulent political debate. And for viewers outside of any religious persuasions, this might sound off-putting. In Schrader’s hands, this examination of an era where vested political and business interests are being placed above religion, manipulating scripture to suit their cause, is nothing less than captivating.
If the themes dealt with hark back to The Last Temptation of Christ, then the central character study is where Schrader is directly referencing Bergman. The relationship between Toller and Esther (Victoria Hill) culminates in a devastating confrontation that directly echoes the nihilistic break-up argument in Winter Light, although this is the only overt nod back to the great Swedish filmmaker. Bergman was no stranger to obsessing over characters in the midst of a crisis of faith, and in Hawke, Schrader has found the perfect vessel for his Bergman homage - it isn’t hyperbole to say that this is the greatest performance of Hawke’s career to date. It’s quietly devastating and never less than mesmerising.
Schrader’s film is pessimistic, with no uplift in his world view; stylistic moments that feel transcendent manage to simultaneously delight in their break from convention, and leave you in despair at the bleak state of a planet caused by humanity’s own failings. It’s the sight of a filmmaker rediscovering the power their voice has - and using it as a cry for help that we are now too powerless to answer.