It’s been a while since Paul Schrader was at the top of his game. The famed screenwriter of Taxi Driver and director of American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and the remake of Cat People (one of my all-time favourite films) has been in something of a slump for the past few years. How bad did it get? He made The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan and Bret Easton Ellis. One of America’s most incendiary and stimulating film-makers seemed to have become inessential. First Reformed is the ultimate reminder that you should never write off a director, even at their nadir.
First Reformed centres on Reverend Ernst Toller, a Protestant minister at a crossroads in his life. His drinking has increased, his congregation has decreased, leaving him in favour of the glossier Megachurch down the road, and the historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York he is in charge of has mostly been reduced to a tourist site. As the church gets ready to celebrate its 250th anniversary, Toller is called upon to guide the husband of a radical environmentalist who sees his wife’s pregnancy as further sign of humanity’s exploitation of the planet. What follows could be described as a thriller but it wouldn’t do it justice, nor would categorising it as a mere drama or character study. Schrader’s never been that neat.
Schrader has spent decades using film as his medium to explore issues of faith and the endless search for spiritual meaning. In that regard, First Reformed is old territory for him, but his claustrophobic approach and evisceration of the appropriation of Christianity see him on wonderfully new and fiery territory. I’ve seen criticisms that this film is anti-Christianity, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. Toller isn’t having a crisis of faith: He’s having a breakout of rage over seeing the beauty and social justice of faith be bastardized by capitalism, power and the so-called American Dream. He shills t-shirts and baseball caps at his church to tourists with barely veiled shame on his face; he gulps back his true feelings as a douchebag at the Megachurch goes all Fox News on him by claiming Christianity can and should be used to gain prosperity; he struggles to find the words to oppose the corporate powers that fund his church then demand political apathy. It’s a shame this movie won’t reach the people it needs to because First Reformed is a truly gutsy faith-driven story that demands answers to the willful weaknesses of organized religion under capitalism and right-wing politics.
Schrader’s direction seems deceptively unfussy. The camera remains static during long conversations and there is none of the technical dazzle he displayed in earlier films. If his old pal Scorsese were behind the camera for this, you’d never get away from the Steadicam. The colour palate is cool and distinctly Protestant, while the music is sparsely used in-between occasional hymns sung by bored looking teenagers. At times it almost feels lifeless but that’s a deliberate choice, echoing how these people who dedicate themselves to faith aren’t even made alive by it. Besides, Schrader doesn’t want anything to distract from the film’s two key forces: The writing - sharp, focused, elegantly ferocious - and the acting.
We’re expecting the coming year’s Oscar race to be crowded with potential Best Actor nominees, but in a just world, we would just hand Ethan Hawke the trophy now and be done with it. A consummate working actor whose projects have veered between great and abysmal with regularity, Hawke has never been better as Toller. This is a performance of intense control and internal turmoil, slowly making its way to the surface with quiet dread. Hawke makes Toller immediately approachable to those who he trusts but steely enough to keep away doubters, and you never doubt his compassion or increasing radicalism, even as they seem at odds with one another. His rapid disintegration - mentally, physically, and spiritually - makes for some of the story’s most gripping and stomach churning moments (think a terrifying cocktail of whisky and Pepto Bismol, filmed in unnerving close-up that calls back to a similar scene with Alka-Setzer in Taxi Driver).
Amanda Seyfried finally gets a role with some real meat on its bones, adding shades of warmth and coldness to a prickly role as the wife who loves and resents her husband in equal measure. Seyfried’s Mary finds comfort in faith not so much through belief but nostalgia, but it clearly still means something to her. It helps that her chemistry with Hawke is utterly beguiling. I haven’t seen any of Cedric the Entertainer’s comedy, so I can’t judge his performance in this in contrast to his better-known person. But what I can say is that he, credited here as Cedric Kyle, puts in some damn fine work as the minister of a Megachurch who is committed to his faith but not enough to give up the fine life. Kyle exudes compassion with a heavy dose of smarm, revelling in the power his position brings but still bowing down to the big money.
First Reformed keeps coming back to the question, ‘Will God forgive us?’ It’s a question one hopes for a concrete answer on, and Toller himself notes how the current generation of young Christians he encounters want quick and easy answers above all else. First Reformed won’t give anyone such closure, but therein lies the brutal power of its message. The questions themselves reveal more than the answers ever could. First Reformed is a serious movie that demands serious focus, and in a year where there’s such hunger for pop culture that speaks of our times, Paul Schrader may do it better than anyone else.
But yeah, you’re probably going to hate the ending. Just a warning.
(Header image courtesy of A24)