PAUL SCHRADER, who wrote and directed First Reformed (Cert. 15), was raised as a strict Calvinist. Never allowed to watch films, at 17 years old he broke loose and began a lifetime’s devotion to cinema. Before writing screenplays (e.g. The Last Temptation of Christ) or directing, he taught film studies. His book Transcendental Style in Film identified Robert Bresson as a director whose films teem with theological investigation, none more so than Diary of a Country Priest (1951).
That is where First Reformed comes in; for it covers similar ground. In both cases, a sad clergyman pastors a dwindling congregation. Both have stomach complaints. Like Bresson’s character, the Revd Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) keeps a journal reflecting on his life at Snowbridge Reformed Church, in upstate New York, “It’s a form of prayer,” he says. Both clergy subsist on a “holy-communion diet” of bread and alcohol.
Toller’s lack of enthusiasm for celebrating Snowbridge’s 250th anniversary is compensated for by the prospering Abundant Life Church under whose auspices he operates. A parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), approaches him. Her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), is in despair over the world’s ecological degradation. Toller suggests seeing an Abundant Life counsellor, but she counters that it feels more like a company than a church.
Visiting Michael is a troublesome experience for both men, leading to tragic conclusions. It re-opens Toller’s own excruciating wounds after his son’s death and resultant marital breakdown. It feels that Toller should get out more. A close-up of his bedside reading indicates that his mentors all have Catholic roots — Thomas Merton’s letters, The Cloud of Unknowing, and G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics. His superior, the Revd Joel Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles), accuses him of being stuck in Gethsemane (unlike Life Abundant’s fixation on euphoria).
Toller does have moments of true transcendence, whether on a cycle ride with Mary or entertaining something of Julian of Norwich’s serenity when holding a nutshell as he prays. The problem is that they jolt uneasily with the general tone of the picture. The minister’s hitherto earthbound existence suddenly takes flight, and we are walking in the air, no longer in Snowbridge, but Snowman territory.
Toller’s character is not dissimilar to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, for which Schrader wrote his first solo screenplay. Both characters want to clean up the world and prepare to take desperate, self-sacrificial measures. The difference is that First Reformed offers forgiveness to those marooned by attempts to transcend their quotidian existence.
The film is remarkable but for a clumsy deus ex machina. At one level, First Reformed is a compendium of Schrader’s acknowledgements to great masters — Bergman, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, et al. — but the greatest debt is to Bresson. Unlike Jeffers, or certain characters in Diary of a Country Priest, Toller knows only too well how necessary despair is, as well as hope, in clothing the soul. Divine assistance come mysteriously. It is an insight as crucial now. The closing words of Diary, “All is grace,” find a contemporary echo in Schrader’s new piece.