By Thomas Puhr.
Paul Schrader takes Christianity seriously: no small feat, given that many “Christian” movies today are of the schmaltzy, Sunday School variety (i.e. God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real). The writer-director’s latest offering, First Reformed (2017), reconfirms his status as one of America’s most unpredictable filmmakers (his last feature was 2016’s hyperviolent, wildly-uneven, but underappreciated Dog Eat Dog).
The film asks tough questions. Does humanity deserve God’s forgiveness? Can violent action ever be acceptable in the face of terrible injustices? Have humans reached the point of no return, the only available outcome being self-destruction? Such thoughts haunt Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of a small church, who begins questioning his faith after meeting Michael (Philip Ettinger), an unstable environmental activist.
Toller’s parish is overseen by the “Abundant Life” megachurch, which, with its arena-style nave and sleek offices, embodies Christianity’s commodification; as Michael points out, it feels more like a business or corporation than a religious institution. Toller butts heads with Abundant Life’s pastor (Cedric Kyles) after the former speaks out against pollution and global warming. Why, Toller wonders, is caring about the earth’s future considered “too political” for church discussion? The answer is painfully ironic: Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the parish’s main benefactor, also happens to own a corporation notorious for its pollution.
Schrader does not hesitate to examine Toller’s hypocrisy, either. Although Toller criticizes the church of justifying its inaction by deferring to God’s plan (when he incredulously asks if people really believe that God wants us to destroy his creation so he can rebuild it, a deadpan Kyles responds with, “He’s done it before”), he ignores the cancer that is slowly killing him and refuses treatment. Is he not also neglecting one of his Lord’s creations: himself? While he avoids religious extremism (he reminds a petulant teenager that Jesus is not just for Americans) – spoiler alert – he falls prey to environmental extremism and, ultimately, violent protest.
The saving grace in all of this mess is the aptly-named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), Michael’s wife. She shares her husband’s and Toller’s environmental convictions, but lacks their hopelessness and extremist views. Her character is the most full of life, both literally and figuratively; she is pregnant and, unlike her husband, wants to bring new life into the world, despite its uncertain and potentially-dangerous future. She welcomes and appreciates Toller’s presence in her life, whereas the former viciously rejects the kindhearted and sympathetic Esther (Victoria Hill), a fellow Abundant Life worker.
Schrader is an outspoken admirer of Robert Bresson, whose fingerprints are all over First Reformed. Besides a handful of significant exceptions, he relies on static shots of his actors, the locations they inhabit, and the objects they handle. Shots often open with empty space, through which a character eventually travels, and continue for some time after he or she exits the frame. Pickpocket (1959) is an obvious reference point for this technique, which Schrader himself has analyzed in his commentary for the film’s Criterion Collection edition. Bresson’s influence is also evident in the sparse use of music. Brian Williams’ foreboding score occasionally (and precisely) accompanies Toller’s spiral into madness; however, Schrader mostly relies on the source music of church organs and choir singers, which calls to mind the deviant choirboys from Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) or the piano-playing alcoholic from L’Argent (1983).
Also like Bresson, Schrader avoids melodrama by omitting what would be key moments in lesser films. The horrific aftermath of a suicide is briefly shown, but the act itself is not. We witness another character’s ongoing grief over this suicide, but are spared the requisite scene in which the authorities first notify them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we never see Toller’s deceased son or estranged wife; not even a photograph is permitted. Like his empty cell of a bedroom, we are only provided with the bare essentials.
Many have already pointed out the obvious parallels to the Schrader-penned Taxi Driver (1976), including the filmmaker himself, but it is still worth examining here. Again, we follow a mentally-unstable man who becomes increasingly paranoid and self-destructive, all while obsessing over “saving” a female character. We even get some nighttime footage of an unhinged Toller driving the streets. The stories’ endings are similarly ambiguous in that it is unclear whether we are witnessing an optimistic resolution or a delusional fantasy. In either case, it is clear that our protagonist, like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, will never be the same.
In keeping with his clear desire to avoid platitudes, Schrader never preaches to his audience or goes out of his way to comfort them. Nevertheless, he does seem to endorse a sort of hopefulness. The film’s opening shot is a fade-in to the titular church, and the first thing we see is a white cross resting on its roof: a small source of light in all that darkness. The implications of Toller’s downward spiral are not despairing, but sobering and practical; our planet, like the human body, has an inevitable expiration date, but that gives us no excuse to speed up the process.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.