First Reformed: 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 and decidedly the least commercially successful member of the “film brat generation,” a clan that 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 commercially accessible feature in 20 years.  To be exact, since the 1997 Affliction, which for me, remains his most fully realized work to date, boasting a towering, Oscar nominated performance from Nick Nolte and an Oscar winning one (in the supporting league) from James Coburn, as the abusive, alcoholic father.

Though First Reformed is too self-conscious and schematically constructed from a dramatic standpoint, it’s still an intriguing film that deserves some critical attention, which is why the film played at both the Venice and Telluride Fests, in 2017.

FIRST REFORMED – Trailer

The entrepreneurial A24 (Moonlight, Lady Bird) is now releasing the film in select theatrical markets. In today’s landscape, First Reformed is an anomaly, a reminder of the kinds of films made in the 1970s.

In First Reformed, Schrader is both revisiting and expanding on 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 (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), 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 (Pickpocket, Diary of a Country Priest, L’Argent).  To be fair, Scharder has done more for promoting Gallic Bresson’s singular sensibility than any other American director.

Ethan Hawks, still vastly underrated as an actor, 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, which is celebrating its 250th birthday; the place has become 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 so we quickly grasp the man’s overloaded troubles and self-punishing guilt over forcing his son into the army, as a result of which his son died and his wife deserted him.

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

Thematically, Toller is contrasted with the more charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who runs a vast and popular church, offering to help out. The energetic Jeffers sees through Toller right away, but despite honorable intent, Toller remains entrapped within himself.  The only avenue of catharsis for him—just as it was for Travis in Taxi Driver–seems to be 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.  Schrader deserves credit for bringing to the forth a side of Hawke’s considerable talent that we have not seen before.

It’s good to see Schrader go back to his personal roots and real forte, “auteur cinema” of the 1970s, even if the film may be too intense, austere, and depressing for young mainstream viewers.

By today’s standards, First Reformed looks at its loner of a hero from a critical, sharply observational distance, which doesn’t go out of its way to soften his hard edges or make him more likeable just for the sake of commercial accessibility.

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