Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Movie Review: First Reformed

First Reformed **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Paul Schrader.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (Toller), Amanda Seyfried (Mary), Cedric Kyles (Pastor Jeffers), Victoria Hill (Esther), Philip Ettinger (Michael), Michael Gaston (Edward Balq), Bill Hoag (John Elder).
Paul Schrader’s remarkable First Reformed is a film that perfectly encapsulates his entire career as a writer and director – addresses pet themes that have been on his mind since at least Taxi Driver in 1976. And yet, it’s also a somewhat different film for Schrader in a way – it’s much more in line with the work of the directors that made him fall in love with cinema – and inspired his first book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer – particularly the latter two in that book, along with Ingmar Bergman – in particular his Winter Light – which was part of his loosely connected Silence of God trilogy. You’ve certainly seen elements of those directors throughout Schrader’s filmography (I actually went back and watched all 20 of his previous directing efforts before seeing First Reformed – a full ranking will be out soon) – but I think this perhaps the first time he’s ever really try to fully recreate that style in one of his films. First Reformed will likely frustrate many audiences who want something more straight forward from their films – but what Schrader does here is quietly profound – he forces you to sit and contemplate the world of this film. It’s not a passive viewing experience – not a film that you give yourself over to, but want you engage with. It strikes me on first viewing that this is Schrader’s masterpiece – the best film he has ever directed. It’s not often that happens with a 72 year old director – especially someone who has always had an uneven career behind the camera, but especially in the last 20 years or so.
In the film, Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller – a Protestant minister, who presides over an historic church – about to celebrate its 250th Anniversary – that is more tourist attraction than house of worship. Not many people attend services there – and the Church is “owned” as it were by a nearby Megachurch, presided over by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles). Toller is another of Schrader’s characters who you could call “God’s Lonely Men” – and early in the film we understand why. He was once a military pastor – from a long line of military men – and he encouraged his son to enlist, and 6 months later he was dead in Iraq. His wife couldn’t stand to be with him, and left him, and he has never forgiven himself for encouraging his son to fight in a war that had no “moral authority”. Presiding over this church is a form of self-punishment for Toller – and a way to hide from the outside world, while still serving God. Unlike many a Schrader character before him, he has not lost his faith – although he finds a connection with God difficult.
Despite his trying to hide from the outside world, it intrudes on him anyway. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is the young wife of an environmental activist Michael (Philip Ettinger), recently released from jail in Canada for his activism, who questions the wisdom of bringing a child into the world when they find out Mary is pregnant. In a long, pivotal scene early in the film, Toller and Michael sit in Michael’s den, as Michal lays out just how the world is changing – how climate change will kill us all, and not in some distant future, but within our lifetimes. How can he look at his child when they ask him that they knew all this and didn’t stop it? He also asks Toller a question that will haunt the Pastor for the rest of the film – “Will God Forgive us?” – in reference to what we’ve done to God’s creation.
This is not the first time Schrader has made a film about a man in crisis – slowly circling the drain into despair and perhaps going to strike out in violence. In fact, it’s kind of a Schrader specialty in films like Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper, Affliction et al. But I don’t think he’s ever done one in quite the same way. He uses voiceover extensively throughout the film – with Toller’s journal providing us insight into his thoughts - in a nod not only to Schrader’s own work, but to Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest. The film really is locked into Toller’s subjective point-of-view throughout – but not so much so that the other characters disappear, or become one note. There is no doubt that Seyfried’s Mary operates on a symbolic level (naming her Mary isn’t exactly subtle) – but Seyfried makes her more complex than a symbol as well. Like Iris, the teenage prostitute brilliantly played by Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, the film is well aware of the way the protagonist sees her, but also who she is as a person. The most surprising piece of casting is Cedric the Entertainer as Jeffers – who is excellent here. Yes, to a certain extent, Jeffers is a sellout – a man as beholden to special interests and donors – but as he explains to Toller at one point, he’s also living in the real world. He does good work, he brings people to the lord, and if he has to go soft on a few issues, than so be it. The film never takes the easy way out – never looks down on him as somehow worse than Toller, and for that matter, never looks at Toller as a potential martyred saint.
As Toller, Hawke gives what is probably the best performance of his career. It is a tortured performance to be sure – one in which even at the beginning he is suffering and in pain – he knows he is ill, perhaps with something that will kill him, but he pushes off going to the doctor. He also pushes away the one other person – Esther (Victoria Hill) who seems to care about him. He wants to be alone in his suffering. He isn’t Travis Bickle – the Taxi Driver protagonist who cannot make connections with others, but something different – he doesn’t really want those connections. His connection with Mary may save him – but it’s deeper than that.
There are two sequences in First Reformed that will likely dictate how you respond to the movie as a whole (spoiler alert). The first comes when Mary tells Toller about something she and Michael used to do that she calls the “Magical Mystery Tour” – where they lay on top of each other – fully clothed – and try to get as much body contact as possible. The scene starts out strangely, and yet beautifully – Mary’s hair falling across Toller’s face – before both of them levitate from the floor, their bodies the floating above the world, where Toller can still only manage to see the destruction, not the beauty, or what is floating over. It’s something that could save him, but he cannot quite see it for what’s there. The other is the end of the film – which Schrader leaves ambiguous. There are two possible readings to that scene – and yet, on a certain level, I’m not quite sure it matters which one you choose – they are both hopeful endings in their own way.
First Reformed is a brilliant film on several levels. Yes, the film is completely plugged into current issues – not just environmental issues, but also political ones in terms of how we approach discourse and certainty. And yet, it also feels timeless in a way, because it isn’t beholden to the specific outrages of the day. It is Schrader’s masterpiece – the best film of the year so far, and the best of his career. And one I cannot wait to see again.

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