“A lot of term papers will be written about this film,” joked Paul Schrader at the NYFF screening of First Reformed, a surprise addition to the festival’s line-up. The multi-hyphenate filmmaker’s latest seems to anticipate dissection: its formal austerity belies a haphazard, literary-minded indulgence. Schrader pays homage to his entire pantheon of influences, from Robert Bresson through Ingmar Bergman to Andrei Tarkovsky, riffs on both high-art slow cinema and grindhouse sensationalism, and combines echt-Schrader themes of faith and temptation with ruminations on eco-terrorism and religious corporatization. It’s an ambitious sweep of ideas that Schrader doesn’t as much synthesize as bring into (albeit thrilling) proximity with one another.
As Ethan Hawke’s anguished ex-military pastor, Reverend Toller, pours Pepto-Bismol into a glass of whiskey, the camera zooms in to invoke Travis Bickle and his Alka-Seltzer; however, the roots Schrader reclaims with this film go even deeper. First Reformed takes as its blueprint Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), which is said to have inspired Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976). Bresson’s tormented young priest presides over a sparse congregation, subsists on bread and wine in spite of a fast-worsening stomach cancer, and journals his growing crisis of faith in longhand. Toller is a somewhat cruder, contemporary version of the same template: just swap out the wine for whiskey, and supplement the religio-philosophical musings with slightly worldlier, statistically-supported concerns about humanity’s unholy desecration of the planet.
Toller ministers to a barely attended, souvenir shop of a church in upstate New York, whose frigid barrenness — emphasized by Schrader’s static, locked-in camerawork — seems to almost enable the gradual withering of the priest’s physical and spiritual self. In a dramatic turn reminiscent of Bergman’s Winter Light (1962), Toller is called upon by a troubled parishioner, a pregnant woman named — wait for it — Mary, to counsel her inconsolable husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who wants her to abort their child. He is Schrader’s counterpart to Bergman’s atomic-bomb-fearing Jonas Persson: a man unable to justify human existence in a world hurtling decisively towards a manmade apocalypse.
Toller and Michael share space for just a single scene in the course of the film, but their riveting back-and-forth serves as the backbone of First Reformed: it lays out the film’s intellectual ideas with a simple, grounding precision that feels more and more essential as the narrative later swerves towards the absurd. Ettinger balances Hawke’s consuming abjection with an intensity that no other actor in the cast is able to muster. The despondency in his eyes is unnerving as he rattles off facts about climate change and environmental degradation, and then asks, plainly and plaintively, “Will God forgive us?” Stumped, Toller responds with platitudes about courage and hope, but his voice and visage betray the cracks in his conviction. When Michael kills himself soon after, leaving behind a suicide vest that suggests a despair far more destructive than Toller had imagined, those cracks open into chasms that threaten to engulf the pastor in guilt-ridden, righteous fury.
First Reformed wears its artiness with gentle irony: quiet, long takes are leavened by the 1:37 format, which comically warps the film’s Bressonian overhead close-ups, while Hawke’s soft, affable voice pleasantly undercuts his Biblical first-person narration. As Toller starts to flirt with the possibilities of violence, however, Schrader’s slow cinema pretensions give way to an expertly deployed sensationalism. At one point, Toller and Mary levitate languidly through poorly green-screened visions of thermal plants, wastelands, and rainforests — a Tarkovskian sequence, executed with a purposeful tackiness that somehow befits the issue of the earth’s disintegration.
Things take a wild turn when Toller discovers, through his obsessive late-night Googling, that his faith and the state of the world around him might be connected by more than just moral quandaries about God’s creations. It turns out that the local industrialist bankrolling the 250th anniversary celebrations of Toller’s church also happens to be one of the biggest polluters in the region. Possessed by the perverse sense of purpose that eludes him all throughout the film, Toller (with Hawke at his implosive best) lets loose his demons in an outrageous, self-flagellatory denouement involving Michael’s bomb vest, a barbed wire and a glass of phenyl. For a moment, it seems like the film is finally ready to thrust its blood-soaked anti-hero out of his solipsistic black hole and into the topical thematic terrain Schrader sketches with flamboyant yet controlled style. Just as things come to a head, however, Schrader cuts abruptly to black. It’s a pander-y tactic, intended to draw exactly the wave of audience gasps and claps it elicited at NYFF — a disappointingly passive end, however, to 108 minutes of rousing, uncompromising provocation.
Devika Girish (@devikagirgayi) is a New York-based critic whose work has appeared in Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Screen Slate and Film Companion, among others. She studied film at Brown University and was selected for the 2017 NYFF Critics Academy.