First Reformed: Paul Schrader Goes Back to his Auteurist Roots

It’s encouraging to see again an art film, First Reformed, by the cerebral filmmaker Paul Schrader, arguably the least accomplished member of the “film brat generation,” which includes Coppola, Scorsese (for whom he wrote some excellent scripts), Spielberg, and De Palma.

With the possible exception of Auto Focus in 2003, Schrader has not made a truly personal or accessible feature in 20 years—since the 1997 Affliction (for me his most fully realized work to date), with a towering, Oscar nominated performance from Nick Nolte.

Though First Reformed is too self-conscious and schematically constructed from a dramatic standpoint, it’s still an intriguing film that deserves critical attention, which is why the film is playing at both Venice and Telluride Fests.

Schrader revisits and expands some of the themes that have preoccupied him for the past four decades: a darkly grim worldview, a male protagonist who’s solitary and/or alienated, repression (moral or mental) that threatens to burst out at any moment in the form of senseless violent behavior.  Stylistically, again Schrader pays homage to his favorite directors, Dreyer, Ozu, and especially Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest, L’Argent).

Ethan Hawks is well cast as Toller, a fortysomething man who’s haunted by his past as a military chaplain and by the loss of his son.  The first reel observes the routine rituals of Tolller as a pastor at a usually empty Dutch Reform church in New England, celebrating its 250th birthday; the place is more of a touristic attraction than a site for loyal worshipers.

Like the hero of Taxi Driver (which Schrader wrote and Scorsese directed), Toller methodically records his thoughts and feelings in a journal, and we quickly grasp the man’s overloaded troubles and punishing guilt over forcing his son into the army, which led to his death, and being deserted by his wife.

It takes a woman, young parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to make Toller more emotionally involved and later actively engaged, when she asks for help in dealing with her pessimistic, suicidal husband.

Toller is contrasted with the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who runs a vast and popular church and offers to help out. The energetic Jeffers sees through Toller right away, but despite honorable intent, Toller remains entrapped within himself, and the only avenue of catharsis for him—just as it was for Travis in Taxi Driver–is bloody violence.

Hawke renders a commanding performance as the troubled and ineffectual Toller, a man of so many weaknesses that he’s unable to help himself, let alone others.

And while it’s good to see Schrader go back to his roots and practice “auteur cinema,” it’s hard not to notice how austere and depressing First Formed is. The a movie looks at its lonely hero from the kind of distance that might also keep viewers uninvolved.

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