First Reformed (2017): Paul Schrader’s Best Film since Affliction (1997)

It’s encouraging to see First Reformed, an art film meant to be an art film, by the filmmaker Paul Schrader, whose career has been defined by more lows than highs.  He’s arguably the least accomplished (and successful) 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 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 critical attention, which is why the film played well at both the Venice and Telluride Fests, in 2017.

The entrepreneurial A24 (Moonlight, Lady Bird) is now releasing the film in select theatrical markets.

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), and repression (moral, mental, and erotic) that threatens to burst out at any moment in the form of senseless violent behavior.

Stylistically, Schrader again pays homage to his favorite directors, Dreyer, Ozu, and especially Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, Diary of a Country Priest, L’Argent).

Ethan Hawks, still vastly underrated as an actor, is well cast as Ernst Toller (a name that makes an allusion to the German playwright of that name), a fortysomething man who’s haunted by his past as a military chaplain and by the loss of his own son.

The first reel observes the routine rituals of Toller as a pastor at a usually empty Dutch Reform church in New England, which is now celebrating its 250th birthday. Over the years, 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 transform Toller into a more emotionally involved man, and later on, to become 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 Bickle in Schrader and Scorsese’s 1976 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.

And while it’s good to see Schrader go back to his roots and practice, “auteur cinema,” it’s hard not to notice how intense, austere, and depressing First Formed is.

The deliberately austere, sometimes punishing tale looks at its lonely hero from the kind of distance that might keep mainstream viewers away.

Oscar Context:

Schrader’s screenplay also was nominated for an Oscar Award, marking the first  nomination of Schrader’s long career.