2018 Film Essays

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms: On Transcendental Style and Paul Schrader’s ‘First Reformed’

In Paul Schrader’s seminal textbook Transcendental Style in Film, the auteur describes a religious tendency in the cinema of Yasujirō Ozu, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson. Despite substantial differences in regards to cultural context, era and visual style, Schrader noticed a shared set of values amongst these directors, rooted in a desire to eschew many of the elements traditionally considered essential to narrative filmmaking in order to arrive at an austere, contemplative cinematic mode. By withholding many of the pleasures of conventional escapist cinema (plot-driven narratives, rapid editing, classical suspense), these filmmakers were able to bring the viewer into a closer contact with the basic pleasures of the real world, filtered through the camera, and hence engage them in a more direct contact with the more mundane expressions of the divine — patterns of light on a pathway, leaves blowing in the wind, ripples on flowing water. Each of these directors, however, would then break from his strict formal restraint in a joyous, metaphysical climax, suggesting the possibility of spiritual rejuvenation — a burst of pure ecstasy that bursts through the austere surface. As Schrader describes, this climax is “an incredible event within the banal reality which must by and large be taken on faith […] The technical stops employed by the everyday are to varying degrees pulled out — the music soars, the characters emote… the decisive action suddenly and inexplicably demands the viewer’s full emotional output.” This moment registers as a substantial rupture in the established language of the film which elevates it to a higher plane. It was through the combination of these two modes — austerity leading to a huge emotional outpouring — that these filmmakers were able to craft a feeling of transcendence akin to a religious experience.

Although Schrader has incorporated elements of the transcendental style in several of his past films, First Reformed is his first project that fully embraces the form. As such, the film feels like the culmination of the thematic and aesthetic preoccupations Schrader has been developing throughout his career; it clearly stands as Schrader’s most accomplished treatise on alienation, the place of the protestant faith in the contemporary world, and spiritual yearning. It is a pointedly ascetic work, constructed around a series of strict aesthetic principles: no non-diegetic music; a muted colour palette dominated by wintery whites and grays; a 1.33 aspect ratio; minimal camera movement; planometric compositions dominate. Schrader has always worn his cinematic influences on his sleeve, yet his work has, for the most part, avoided registering as simply a compendium of reference points. The power of First Reformed is rooted in Schrader’s ability to take a number of clear forbearers — Bresson, Dreyer, Maurice Pialat — and twist them into a style that feels wholly unique and rooted in a personal set of values and obsessions. 

At the centre of First Reformed is a lengthy discourse between the small town parish pastor, Toller, and a despondent member of his flock, the radical environmentalist Michael, who has just been released from a Canadian jail following a violent act of political activism. Michael is an expectant father, struggling to reconcile his desire to bring a child into the world with his awareness of the rapid destruction of the natural landscape. How, he questions, can it be morally justifiable to bring up a child in a world that will be ravaged by climate change by the time he has reached adulthood? Toller meekly attempts to counter Michael’s despondency with optimism (we must have faith in God’s benevolence, even though the meaning behind his actions may not be immediately apparent to us, he argues, and the highest form of courage is simply pushing forward in spite of all reasons to anguish), but his lessons fall on deaf ears. When news spreads that Michael has committed himself, Toller is plunged into despair and abjection. Toller’s issues and doubts increasingly eat away at his psyche: his antiquated Church is gradually losing members to the new, plush Abundant Heart church nearby; his guilt over encouraging his deceased son to enlist in the U.S. army resurfaces; his physical health is deteriorating. The film is built around dialectics: hope and despair; passivism and activism; thought and action; new and old; nihilism and faith; physical and spiritual. These are the issues which Toller struggles to juggle in his own mind, and the result is an existential torment that plunges him further and further into an anguish that threatens to find expression through violence — a process which runs parallel to the countdown towards the 250th anniversary of his chapel.

Toller is — to borrow a phrase from Schrader’s Taxi Driver — a man of contradictions, caught between passive contemplation and socio-political outrage. He lives a self-consciously minimalist and disciplined lifestyle, retreating each night to a stripped-back rectory to write a record of his thoughts in a journal. He shuns materialist pleasures and 21st century technologies, steadfastly refusing to modernize his church despite his dwindling congregation. The fact that this self-imposed austerity could be perceived as either heroic devotion or prideful self-indulgence is not lost on Toller: “When I read these words I see not truth but pride”, he writes. “Did Jesus worry about being liked?” As much as he longs to reach the spiritual purity of a saint, Toller cannot escape his petty egoism, and his awareness of this irony results in extreme self-hatred. As Schrader explained in a recent interview: “It all starts with the blood. Everybody sacrifices: there are the symbolic bloody sacrifices of the son, the symbolic drinking of the blood for communion. And so Christians often go off in this way. They’re connecting their suffering to Christ’s suffering. They’re suffering their way into heaven, and they can therefore redeem themselves”. Toller masochistically commits himself to absolute abstinence, perceiving it as a heroic display of moral fiber that will bring about his spiritual absolution. In doing so, Toller increasingly sheds his previous conviction and is drawn towards Michael’s extremist ideology — as he is tasked with presiding over the man’s funeral and sorting through his belongings, Toller finds himself plagued by the same sense of ecological dread. If Toller previously considered it his position to stand as a solid beacon of hope in the face of the overwhelming forces of despair that are consuming his parishioners, the primary question that comes to plague him is whether inaction in the face of widespread injustice is itself sinful. Is it more justifiable for Toller to take on the role of the passivist or the activist? In direct opposition to the idealistic, self-doubting Toller is Joel Jeffers, the pragmatic, complacent leader of Abundant Life, who runs his church with the simple-minded gusto of a self-help guru and finds more value in dealing with monetary concerns than tackling complex theological conundrums. As Toller increasingly believes, the natural world must be perceived as a manifestation of God and the Church’s refusal to directly engage the fight against its despoliation by industry is a betrayal of the holy doctrine. Joel, in contrast, believes that the Church should play a more abstract role in the spiritual guidance of its followers and remain removed from socio-political matters. To rub salt into the wound, Joel accepts a substantial donation by a local industrialist whose company is responsible for a large portion of the area’s water pollution. 

As many critics have noted, First Reformed most explicitly resembles Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, yet it seems equally indebted to The Devil, Probably. Bresson’s film charts the plight of a group of youths descending into malaise as a result of their conviction that ecological pollution will soon bring about total annihilation. Whereas Bresson focused on the new generation suffering from fallout from the sins of their elders, Schrader tackles the guilt experienced by the elders at bringing about such destruction through their apathy and greed. The former film includes images of baby seals being clubbed to death by Western hunters and sea animals suffocating in oil spills, the latter abounds with computerized images of environmental collapse; digital models predicting the intensified rising of sea levels and the melting of ice caps over the next few decades. Both films have an apocalyptic tone, informed in equal measure by the wider sense of looming environmental collapse and the act of extreme violence that the tight, deterministic structure of each seems to be pushing its protagonist towards. Toller takes possession of a suicide vest that once belonged to Michael, and its presence in his dwellings seems a sure-fire sign of impending catastrophe — but though the counting-clock structure seems to be thrusting Toller in the direction of radical action, it remains unclear (to him and to viewers) exactly what form that action will take.

Schrader had a strict upbringing in the Calvinist faith, and First Reformed feels like an attempt to come to terms with his own conflicted feelings towards his background.  The Calvinists were notable for their steadfast rejection of the visual decadence which had overtaken the Catholic church, as they longed to rid themselves of the distraction of visual splendour and re-focus their flock onto the sacred doctrines. This austerity is reflected not only in the habits of Toller — a nostalgist who wards off the pervasive influence of the materialist Abundant Life — but in the stripped-back formal severity of the film itself. 

As in Bresson’s Pickpocket — to which Schrader memorably played tribute in American Gigolo — the chance of salvation is a female figure. In this case, it is Michael’s widow Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a wide-eyed beacon of calm acceptance whose resolve remains unaffected by even the most devastating personal tragedy. The climax marks this moment of metaphysical transcendence, in a bravura set-piece which begins with violent mania before swerving into romanticism. Toller first reverts into grunting, animalistic aggression, wrapping his torso in barbed wire to simulate the physical — not only the psychological — suffering of Christ and donning the suicide vest, seemingly with the intention of bombing the anniversary service, where the leaders of Abundant Life, as well as the CEO of a local oil company, are congregating. When he sees Mary enter the service, going against his repeated attempts to keep her away, Toller finds himself unable to go through with the plan. Instead, he re-channels his aggression into self-abuse, as he pours himself a glass of drain cleaner and prepares to drink. Mary’s appearance (and it is, notably, a miraculous appearance rather than an entrance) in Toller’s room marks the beginning of the decisive action, as Schrader describes. Toller drops the glass, rushes over and the two kiss passionately — an act captured with a fluid, swooning camera movement and the rising melodies of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It is left ambiguous, however, whether this moment of total ecstasy is real or imagined — possibly even a vision of the afterlife following Toller’s suicide.

The ending of First Reformed has often been compared to that of the Schrader-scripted Taxi Driver, in which a dream-like coda suggests that its lead character has either been hailed as a hero by society after his psychotic actions or he has lost his mind completely within the confines of a jail cell, retreating entirely into grandiose delusions. In the earlier film, however, this ambiguity is cynical whichever way you look at it: Travis Bickle is a despicable character, one who only indulges in grandiose fantasies as a way to self-justify his intense alienation, misogyny and bitterness. If Bickle was lionized by the New York press, it would not point to the protagonist’s redemption but rather reveal further the rottenness of the city that breeds men like him. In contrast, Toller is a far more admirable — though imperfect — figure, and the ending of First Reformed is an act of empathy in his favour. Schrader has spoken openly about the ambiguity of his ending: “It’s calibrated to be read in different ways, because when you look at it closely, she suddenly appears, the room is much lighter, the footsteps go away — so [I was] trying to find the right balance between it being a kind of intervention of grace, a kind of miracle, or an ecstatic vision, which is also a kind of miracle, I guess.” What is clear, then, is that either interpretation is deeply optimistic. If we are to believe the former, Mary has appeared miraculously to deliver Toller a respite from his torment, thus sparing his life. If we are to believe the latter, Toller has finally shed the shackles of the physical world and has found a degree of peace in the next world, as if God, who has long tormented Toller with his absence, now embraces his disciple with open arms. Toller’s redemption is certain, whether this takes an earthly form or a more abstract, metaphysical one.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker from Dorset, UK and a PhD student at The University of Southampton. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication in 2018.