Words and the Flesh
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Paul Schrader, U.S., A24
First Reformed is a film of two life-or-death struggles, passed off as in a relay. The first belongs to a young environmental activist and expectant father, unable to come to terms with bringing a child into a world that is dying. He tells his troubles to the local parish pastor, Toller, a 46-year-old onetime military chaplain, and in so doing he infects the clergyman with his abjection and despondency. These twin combats between hope and despair teeter on the brink of violence, but in practice they are mostly fought with words—the discourse between the would-be shepherd and his wayward sheep, and the ongoing conversation that Toller keeps with himself in the form of a journal.
This reckoning with the relationship between word and deed is a kind of apotheosis for First Reformed’s writer-director, Paul Schrader, who came to the primarily visual art of cinema as a man of letters. He was a film critic and screenwriter before he was a filmmaker, and before anything else he was a member of the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Of good Dutch stock, Schrader was a distant relation of those Calvinists who had engaged in wanton acts of iconoclasm, stripping the churches of northern Europe of the decadent pictorial ornament that threatened to distract attention from the sacred text, newly elevated to principal importance in salvation. Schrader’s Protestant background—in one of the more severe Protestant denominations, no less—marked him as an outlier in the so-called “movie brat” generation, where he was operating among a flock of Catholics (Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, De Palma) and Jews (Friedkin, Bogdanovich). America, we are told, is at heart still a Protestant country, but you wouldn’t know it to look at our national cinema, deeply marked as it is by the contributions of these two groups, and from rather early on Schrader, though shaped by his doctrine-driven upbringing and education, was drawn toward the sinful and sumptuous aesthetics offered by other, exotic cultural traditions, experimenting with the presentational and theatrical visuals of Japanese cinema and theater in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), or working in collaboration with Italian or Italian-American Catholics like Scorsese or Ferdinando Scarfiotti, his “visual consultant” on key transitional works American Gigolo (1980) and Cat People (1982). Even Schrader’s second film, Hardcore (1979), which comes nearest to First Reformed in milieu, with its opening in Calvinist Grand Rapids, descends in due time to a neon luridness, basking in the sex shop lights and leering licentiousness of that modern Gomorrah, the Sunset Strip.
The opening shot of First Reformed, a steady, slow-approaching dolly toward a church building that emerges in all of its blanched, spotless whiteness from the dark, as though through the slow opening of the camera’s iris, suggests that Schrader has finally turned his back on his voluptuary and hedonistic tendencies—though the film itself develops a more complicated relationship with visual extravagance. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan shoots in the squared-off Academy ratio and, early on, composes for scrupulously flattened perspectives; when Toller pulls up in front of a parishioner’s home, he parks his car dead center. The colors are the blanched gray scale of the northeast in the dead of winter, and Toller hasn’t much more pink in his complexion than the weathered stones in his old church’s graveyard.
Ethan Hawke, playing the pastor, appears in almost every one of the movie’s scenes. Constricting the narrative largely to the experience of a single character, First Reformed belongs to what Schrader has referred to as his “monocular films,” the first and most famous of these being Taxi Driver, for which he wrote the screenplay. Like Travis Bickle and many Schrader protagonists after him, Toller is a dedicated diarist, keeping up a conversation with himself for want of any other close companionship. His son, we learn, died in the Iraq War, and his marriage did not survive the loss. He drinks alone now, and the drinking worsens health problems that he refuses to admit or address. His congregation is sparse and graying, and he effectively acts as a caretaker and tour guide at the church, which has stood now for 250 years, though is mostly a feather in the cap of and gift shop annex for the nearby megachurch that owns it, Abundant Life Ministries. The solitude of his existence is emphasized by the state in which he keeps the rectory, bare of all but the very minimum of furniture, and quiet as a tomb.
For a moment, however, it appears that Toller has found a purpose that will newly re-engage him with his pastoral mission: his conversation with that troubled activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger, urgent and excellent in a pivotal part), who’s been induced by his wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to seek counsel with Toller. Michael has a scientific certitude of forthcoming environmental catastrophe, which Toller counters with a message of hope, but when Michael blows a hole in his head prior to a scheduled meeting, the fired shot opens up a breach in Toller’s already shaky conviction, and a darkness rushes in. The drinking increases. Michael’s explosive-rigged vest, which Toller had absconded with to ensure the younger man’s safety, begins to exert a sinister allure.
A very good actor who has in recent years grown into a great one, Hawke gives an extraordinarily controlled performance as a man struggling mightily to retain dominion over himself, and the frequent interludes of voice-over only articulate a bottled-up anguish that is already perfectly eloquent in actor’s countenance, every minute detail of which speaks to an almost unendurable act of self-regulation. The furrow that splits his brow seems like the physical manifestation of a divided nature; a throbbing vein in the actor’s temple suggests a buried rage, as though it might at any minute pop loose and start snapping about like a downed live wire.
Among many things, First Reformed marks the latest chapter in Schrader’s career-long engagement with the films of Robert Bresson, a guiding light of his directorial career just as Alfred Hitchcock has been to De Palma. (These relationships have occasionally been brought up as a knock on either director, though no one would seriously suggest that Bresson was compromised by his frequent returns to, say, Dostoevsky.) Key influences here, as ever with Schrader, are Diary of a Country Priest (1951), from which he borrowed the journal-keeping habits and ulcer-forming dietary habits of Bickle and Toller, and his Pickpocket (1959), whose concluding note of romantic salvation and succor has been a recurring touchstone. I believe there is also at work more than a little bit of The Devil, Probably (1977), perhaps Bresson’s most fully forlorn film, explicitly concerned, as are so many of his late works, with the questions of despondency and suicide.
The Devil, Probably addresses itself to the plight of youth facing a world that offers no faiths worth believing in, a world despoiled and polluted and seemingly headed for annihilation—it contains what I believe to be the only instance of stock footage in Bresson’s filmography, 16mm projected scenes of crops being doused with chemicals and of animals floundering in oil-slick waters and of baby seals being clubbed until their white fur shows bloody pink. Forty years later the tired world keeps turning, and the eco-panic of Bresson’s film has reached full-on hysteria in Schrader’s, which seems to exist in the shadow of a looming extinction-level event. Sorting through the pieces of Michael’s life, Toller becomes ever more deeply obsessed with the documents that his parishioner had accumulated testifying to the dire state of the planet—the only respect in which First Reformed seems an old man’s movie is that everyone in it prints articles out from the Internet in order to read them.
Schrader met and interviewed Bresson for Film Comment in 1976, as the French director was preparing The Devil, Probably, and he discussed his inspirations for making the film, among them the growing horror he felt at the planet’s condition. “You know,” Bresson says, “even your astronauts, the first one who put his foot on the moon, said that when he first saw our earth, he said it is something so miraculous, so marvelous, don’t spoil it, don’t touch it. More deeply I feel the rotten way they are spoiling the earth. All the countries. Silence doesn’t exist anymore; you can’t find it. That, for me, would make it impossible to live.” Schrader, still then only an aspirant director, describes for Bresson Taxi Driver, whose Cannes debut he has stopped at chez Bresson on Île St-Louis en route to. “I wrote an austere film,” he says, “and it was directed in an expressionistic way. I think that the two qualities work together. There is a tension in the film that is very interesting.”
That tension has, to one degree or another, been sustained through the entirety of Schrader’s directorial career, even in First Reformed, the film of his that most firmly fits in the austere tradition explored in his 1972 study Transcendental Style in Film, expanded for republication in concert with the film’s release. So, too, are Bresson’s comments relevant to Schrader’s film: not only in their outrage at the despoliation of creation, but in their fear for the disappearance of silence, and with it all that quiet brings. Toller, a man of the revealed word, increasingly becomes beleaguered and oppressed by language. His own words, as recorded in his journal, seem to pursue him through the day. Sitting down at the Abundant Life Ministries cafeteria with the choir director (Victoria Hill), still clinging to the memory of a fleeting affair between them, decorative scripture seems to loom over their meeting. The spiritual wounds and physical pain that Toller tries to conceal from the world do not escape the attention of either his spurned lover or Abundant Life’s spiritual leader, played by Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles, who tries to draw his charge out into the field of theological debate. But Toller is reaching exasperation with the limits of the word, and longs to translate a growing conviction into irreversible acts.
Kyles’s character offers a robust, worldly contrast to the sickly, self-lacerating Toller, and the actor brings a grounded humanity to what might easily be a straw man part. It’s through him that Toller meets Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a locally headquartered industrialist whose company is a major polluter. His philanthropic contributions are responsible for restoring the organ at First Reformed in time for the anniversary celebration, and for Toller, an increasingly desperate man in search of a redemptive crusade, Balq comes to look like a target as irresistible and inevitable as Jerusalem in the hands of the Saracens.
The question with which Toller grapples—what is the role of the man of God in the face of abusive power?—is a distinctly contemporary gloss on a debate as old as that over the precise meaning of “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Schrader, raised within a tradition of lively exegesis, has never lacked for provocative ideas, matched to an often recklessly pugilistic public persona and a questing, experimental streak. His 2013 The Canyons, for example, was one of the first movies to grasp what the writer Sam Donsky has called the “extra-text” aspect of contemporary film consumption—“everything from casting speculation, to casting news, to posters, to promotional stills, to teasers, to trailers, to on-set reporting, to blog posts, to think pieces, to star markets, to tweets, to Instagram posts, to Snapchat stories, and on and on and on — all the detritus that has rendered the movies themselves almost incidental to our experience of them.” What he has occasionally struggled to find, however, is a satisfying narrative framework to affix his ideas to. If First Reformed is being greeted as a “return to form,” it’s because it acquits itself quite well on this front, operating as an increasingly harried countdown to the church anniversary accompanied, almost literally, by the anxiety provided by a ticking bomb.
In preparation for the Sestercentennial, the church organ will toll anew, loud and clear—the film’s non-diegetic music is mostly of the liturgical variety, with a place of privilege given to the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” as sheltering here as it is menacing when crooned by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, and “A Mighty Fortress,” which Kyles describes as written by the infamously constipated Martin Luther while straining at stools. (Clogged plumbing and agonized bathroom visits act as a kind of refrain in First Reformed, which suggests a crisis of faith as a kind of spiritual constipation.) In stark contrast to the balm of the choral music is the harsh, rumbling undercurrent provided by ambient musician Lustmord—a grim, grating noisome presence that has the quality of some malevolent, predatory thing gnashing its teeth just out of sight, increasingly angry and insistent.
These sounds of hope and despair correlate to the competing forces pulling Toller in different directions—the call of the pacific Christ, or the Christ who stated that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Or, as the case may be, homemade explosives.) The assuaging force, as so often with Schrader, is a feminine influence—Seyfried’s not insignificantly named Mary, a figure of preternatural calm throughout her own tragedy. She is the impetus for First Reformed’s sharpest breaks from its rule of stylistic austerity, including a dizzy circling camera move that recalls a certain swooning kiss in De Palma’s Body Double and a moment of erotically charged repose in which the commiseration of synchronized breathing opens to a fantasy of flight over unspoiled natural landscapes. Schrader has been uncharitable to the recent work of his old American Film Institute classmate Terrence Malick, memorably likening Malick’s Song to Song to “the unwanted urine which dribbles from an old man’s penis,” but in this moment one feels a common impulse between these two theologically inclined filmmakers to situate human drama within a much larger ecological framework—or even cosmological, as Schrader gives us an image of a globule of Pepto-Bismol floating in a tumbler of whiskey that looks like something beamed back by the Hubble Space Telescope.
In the wordless alighting by Toller and Mary, jarring and a little corny and very touching for being so earnestly agape at natural beauty, there is a whisper of the bucolic peace and quietude found in Psalms 23:2: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” The imperative sense that Toller must somehow get beyond the din of dulling language is the animating tension of First Reformed, which builds to a climax of subsuming mania thanks in no small part to Hawke’s total commitment, descending into frothing, feral ferocity as he girds his torso with a homemade twist on the penitent’s hair shirt. It is only in such a state that salvation can be glimpsed—only in driving himself to the level of an incoherent beast that he perceives again the possibility of being a man.