First Reformed (2018) by Paul Schrader
Review by Nathan Smith
If you know anything at all about Paul Schrader – besides his decades of accomplishments as a director, screenwriter, and critic, of course – you probably know about his faith. In interviews, Schrader has often recounted the intensity of his family’s Calvinist beliefs: “We believed in a very real hell and very real evil. My mother took my hand once and stabbed me with a needle. She said, ‘You know how that felt, when the needle hit your thumb? Well, hell is like that... all the time!’” Beginning with the screenplay to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Schrader has spent decades spinning the guilt caused by that strict upbringing into cinematic gold. Though anguish, doubt, and existential ennui are old friends in Schrader’s filmography, he has never wrestled as directly with religious concerns as he does in First Reformed, his much-heralded “return to form.”
Ethan Hawke plays Tuller, the reverend of a historic, meager country church in upstate New York. Tuller is, from the earliest moments of the film, beset by doubt and depression, which he attempts to wrestle with in a journal. The pains of Tuller’s life play like a country song: first he lost his son, killed in an unjust war that Tuller encouraged him to enlist in, then he lost his marriage, then he lost it at all. But in that loss he found faith and a new calling as a man of the cloth. But Tuller stands to lose his faith now, too; he is isolated, ill, and alcoholic, with few companions beyond pen, paper, and his thoughts.
First Reformed may owe an obvious debt to Robert Bresson, as all of Schrader’s films do, but this is not the rural France of Diary of a Country Priest. This is America in 2017, and Tuller is a dying man in a dying world. The old country church is no longer the holy of holies but a gift shop, an old relic maintained by a bureaucratic, corporate mega-church called Abundant Life.
A sharp contrast exists between the severe Tuller, almost always dressed in his plain priestly garb, and Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), the gregarious and levelheaded leader of Abundant Life. Jeffers makes compromises, accepting corporate money to keep the electricity running and the Bibles thumping. Tuller, on the other hand, carries a heavy cross, looking at life in black and white. He is despondent at the state of the world, and that despondence only increases when he comes in contact with a young environmentalist couple, Michael (Philip Ettinger) and Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who radicalize him further. Though I am not normally prone to spoilerphobia, I’ll stop here with the plot details because this is a movie best seen blind.
First Reformed is quite obviously a spiritual film in content. But I would argue that same religiosity can also be found in its form. Several months ago I saw Paul Schrader give a Q&A in which he said that all of his ideas on film form and the capacity of images to carry ideas came from growing up in “churches that look like conference rooms.” I did not grow up Calvinist, but I did grow up Mormon, a markedly different but comparably intense religious encounter, and can relate to that experience of aesthetic bareness. First Reformed is frigid and rigid, like a Protestant church that looks more like a school for the blind than a house of worship.
Like the cold and flat floorboards of homes in Upstate New York, ever creaking beneath the feet of its characters, First Reformed is durable and deceptively simple. Conversations are often captured in fixed long takes and unadorned master shots. The musical soundtrack is scarce save for diegetic choirs and the occasional ambient throbbing. The most prominent sounds we hear are those floorboards settling under feet. Schrader’s filmmaking is like a plainspoken pastoral church, as sparse as Tuller’s abode, built from timber strong enough to withstand the wear of war and centuries. First Reformed may be of the moment and on the pulse in the issues it addresses, but it is enduring and everlasting in its architecture.
What gives First Reformed its holy power are its privileged moments: the way exhaust fumes leave a car in the cold, the bubbling of Pepto Bismol as Tuller pours it into a glass of whiskey, how Amanda Seyfried’s long locks fall from atop her head. A privileged moment is a shard of a film, what Roland Barthes would call the “punctum,” that pierces the shell around it. A gesture, a glance, some cinematic molecule that looks out and speaks directly to us whether the filmmaker intended it to or not.
First Reformed is a film about doubt, but privileged moments are tokens of faith in the cinematic medium, like beads in a rosary. The privileged moment is a moment of ecstasy, but it is also a moment of revelation, a vision that unveils the humanity within the apparatus. Schrader’s idol Bresson once wrote that “What no human eye is capable of catching, no pencil, brush, or pen of pinning down, your camera catches without knowing what it is, and pins it down with a machine’s scrupulous indifference.” As Bresson says, the camera is indifferent, unaware, and automatic – like children of god, the camera is limited only by the failings of its creator. But it is that very inhumanity that allows the camera to see beyond we see, to find faith where we only find doubt.
For what fumes does the engine of film run on but faith? Faith that the image onscreen will resemble what the artist sees in their head, that the camera will capture the light we want it to capture, that actors will understand a character and express a feeling, that audiences will suspend their disbelief and be moved by what they see. Film takes faith - or risk, which is just a more honest name for faith.
Despite all of its despair and despondence, faith is where First Reformed leaves us: uncertain at the fate of its characters and the world they (and we) inhabit, but hopeful, steadfast, leaning on the everlasting arm. At one point, Jeffers tells Tuller that he doesn’t need to spend all his time suffering “in the garden.” This is a rare moment of auto-critique for Paul Schrader, an artist who has worked in suffering like others work in ink or oil, which makes the final sequence of First Reformed even more radical. By film’s end, Schrader, Tuller, and audience alike realize that there are ways to change the world that don’t involve bleeding from every pore. Like the Protestant God who offers forgiveness in exchange for good works, First Reformed is that rare American film that demands your attention and requires your reflection. I suggest you give it both.