Monday, July 23, 2018

First Reformed (2017)

In First Reformed, director and writer Paul Schrader turns again to both American Calvinism and to the heroic era of European art cinema. What he comes away with is one of his richest and yet most characteristic pictures. It's kind of a knockout, in fact, though a bit lumpy and with some corners cut. I haven't followed Schrader since about Light Sleeper and Affliction. Maybe I've been missing out, or maybe I'm just excited at the moment, but First Reformed feels like it might deserve a place with Taxi Driver, Hardcore, Patty Hearst—with his best. Ethan Hawke deserves a lot of the credit too. In a quiet but electrifying performance as the Reverend Ernst Toller, who is suffering unto sickness from modern-day life, he manages a poise and calm that is anything but poise and calm, an inner coiled tension of tremendous anguish. If Calvinism gets its due here so does Schrader's cinema hero Robert Bresson. Toller is a Protestant pastor in a Calvinist First Reformed church that dates back to pre-Revolutionary times in upstate New York, but much of the action in this picture is propelled literally by his diary. If that's not enough, there's also a bicycle shot straight out of Bresson's 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. We could do this all day—there are also obvious elements in First Reformed of Ingmar Bergman (notably Winter Light), Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Dreyer, and other usual suspects. But what I like best about First Reformed is its straightforward commitment to meaning in life and/or the lack of it. An intense scene occurs early, when Toller attempts to counsel a young environmental activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), whose wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant. Michael doesn't want her to have the baby. Speaking with Toller, he lays out an eloquent vision of the likely future of the planet in the next 33 years. It is devastating and convincing—to me, to Toller, to anyone who is environmentally aware. The people who deny climate change are also in this movie, running big corporations and footing hefty portions of the bills for the megachurch corporation Toller reports to up the chain—the movie is also about the ongoing corporatization of religion in America. These people believe talking about the reality of climate change is rude in social situations. It is "being political" and they object to it. As they are paying the bills they feel they have the right to dictate terms to some extent. "No politics." So it goes. Toller cannot accept what is happening in the world. He cannot live with it. He lingers over the question Michael posed to him, "Can God forgive us for what we've done to his creation?" Toller doesn't know what he can do. The case for despair is so convincing here—in fact, despair is all they are talking about and living through in this movie. Then Schrader reaches back for some of the apocalyptic elements of Travis Bickle's war on the scum of the earth to effectively charge events in First Reformed to a thriller pitch. In the final third, the picture goes to some pretty strange places, including the final images. It's not realism at all but a kind of inspired hallucination of spirituality made visible. Like Bresson, Schrader's goal is to film the soul imprisoned in the flesh. Like Toller, and John Calvin, he wants to save those souls. Good luck with that to all of us.

1 comment:

  1. I need to know more of Schrader's deep cuts. This one, Hardcore, Patty Hearst, and, after reviewing a few notes on web, Blue Collar, and I relish looking at them now as stories of "souls imprisoned in the flesh."