Considering the low-rent hyper-stylized (and critically disastrous) Paul Schrader features of the past decade (The Canyons, 2013; Dog Eat Dog, 2016), First Reformed might come as a surprise, if not a dull sense of relief. On the surface, the premise of a small church reverend experiencing some sort of crisis of faith feels dramatically smaller in scale compared to say, Travis Bickle’s reckoning in Taxi Driver (1976). Yet First Reformed encompases a return to form for Schrader, as he articulates a similar spiritual thematic framework that distinguished the first forty years of his work (Taxi, of course, but also Mishima, American Gigolo, Raging Bull, Affliction, etc.) through the sort of formal elements practiced by his early idols, Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer. On top of this, the script never loses sight of Schrader’s affinity for the extravagant and the pulpy. First Reformed somehow reminded me of the delightful Tyra Banks supermodel mantra: “act like a hoe but make it fashion.” In this case, write something bonkers, but make it art-house.
Like the techniques described in Schrader’s film theory text, “Transcendental Style,” First Reformed prefers silence over contrived dialogue. Instead of active camera movement, the film relies mostly on tight and still fixed frames locked down and stretched out over time. The film is mostly devoid of nondiegetic sound until well past the halfway point when an ambient, alienating John Williams score is introduced. Several extended long shots focus on spaces of reflection–the cemetery, the study, the garden– as if trying to visualize the idea of mystery. All these formal elements of restraint and austerity surely contribute to the Puritan atmosphere of the film, expressed aptly through the sterile color palette of Reverend Toller’s religious community in upstate New York, but this obvious religious association with ascetic aesthetics (ha!) only works in tandem with engaging performances and Toller’s compelling spiritual ruminations in voiceover to create a final product abound in the beauty and mystery and ugliness of language and relationships. Not so much a film lacking in drama or subverting character for the sake of a contemplative transcendence ala slow cinema.
As in Bresson’s Pickpocket and Diary of A Country Priest, a man decides to keep a diary. The accompanying act of writing and reflection comes to change how Reverend Toller might’ve typically reacted to the events that will take place in the film. We get the sense that Toller has long been severe, long been hopeless, has been trudging along stoically as he awaits imminent death for quite some time now. When it becomes apparent that his parent mega-church accepts donations from one of the country’s worst polluters, Toller spirals into an urgent sense of righteousness. This imperative eventually takes the “self-sacrificial” form of a suicide bombing on a gathering of corporate church big wigs and energy execs, and yet the dimension of pure martyrdom seems also to be tainted by the sense that Toller was only really waiting for the perfect, most divine rationale for killing himself.
Less a dismissive of the religious ethos, the ending serves as a corrective. In his scripts, Schrader often turns to grace as the saving force of his characters when met with the cruel indifference of the world, defiantly ugly and corrupt in spite of the protagonists radical undoing efforts. Indeed, the ending of First Reformed is a passionate embrace between Toller and Mary where the camera whirls around the two in a crescendo of movement, as if the camera were ripped out from its permanent tripod and released. Where Toller’s story could have ended in the culmination of hatred, of neglect and self-loathing, like a divine miracle, the story takes a sharp turn into an acceptance of unconditional love, of doing away with the ego and embracing goodness even in the darkest of places.