Joyce Glasser reviews First Reformed (July 13, 2018) Cert. 15, 113 min.
Paul Schrader has not directed a film anyone has wanted to see since Autofocus in 2002, but after the success of his script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), he was able to direct his first film, the acclaimed Blue Collar (1978). Now, aged 71, Schrader has made a minor masterpiece starring Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Before Sunrise) as Pastor Toller with Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!). There have been plenty of movies about priests questioning their faith, including Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light which First Reformed closely resembles, but nothing quite like this one.
Bergman said that Winter Light is his favourite of his films and you can see why. Bergman had an unhappy childhood, though one that fed his imagination with the ‘angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans…’ that, as a child, he associated with church architecture. His strict, repressive father was a Lutheran minister whose parenting contributed to Bergman’s loss of faith and his reactionary vocation in theatre and film. Winter Light deals with the frustration and resentment of a local pastor whose spiritual doubts about his ability to save souls are compounded by the demands of his dwindling congregation; including an amorous parishioner and a melancholic paralyzed by his nuclear bomb doomsday scenario.
You can also understand why Paul Schrader, of Dutch ancestry and raised in the strict principles of his family’s Calvinist Christian Reformed Church would be interested in these themes, too. He claims he was not allowed to see a film until he was 17 and only then by sneaking away from home. Before earning an MA in film from UCLA, he studied theology as an undergrad at Calvin College and so the debates in Winter Light must have struck a chord.
Despite the closeness of the Bergman’s plot to First Reformed there is too great a difference in emphasis, time frame (Bergman’s film is set over a three-hour period) and stylistic approach to label First Reformed a US remake. And First Reformed is no art house film. It has stronger shades of Schrader’s scripts for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead than of anything in Bergman. But First Reformed is so wonderfully over-the-top and almost humorously strange that you could never confuse this for a Scorsese film.
Ethan Hawke’s former military chaplain is dealing with the guilt and loss of a son that he sent off to fight, although not to die. As a result of his delicate condition, Toller is assigned to a quiet position at First Reformed, an 18th Century Dutch Colonial ‘tourist ‘church in upstate New York.
But when a pregnant parishioner (Seyfried) asks him to talk to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), he finds himself in a dark place. Michael is a fervent environmentalist who refuses to bring a child into a world that is being destroyed by human excess. Michael’s statistics are convincing, but he seems to revel in his doomsday hopelessness, unable to take in Toller’s heartfelt attempts to convince him of an alternative outlook.
You could, perhaps, smile at Michael’s middle-class, educated, liberal fears, just as America’s Cold War audience might have discounted the nuclear fears of the parishioner in Winter Light. But Bergman’s parishioner never had a bomb sewn into a suicide vest stashed in his garage. When Toller finds the belt, he starts combing the internet and finds a disturbing link between Michael’s activism and his own Church.
If Toller fails Michael, he finds himself clashing with the church’s conservative benefactor, (Michael Gaston) whose oil company is a major polluter. It is less the theological discussion of Bergman’s Winter Light than an ideological war of words that you might have with Andrew Wheeler, President Trump’s new EPA chief, determined to reverse Obama’s environmental policy. Michael’s fate and the rekindled latent memories of his role in the fate own child, send the fragile Toller into spiritual melt-down as if the ‘toll’ of senseless death is too much him. He begins drinking heavily and looking at the suicide vest as a 21st century crown of thorns.
First Reformed juxtaposes powerful melodrama with topical political and philosophical conversations, charming detail and uncanny images of a personal break-down. Hawke, who was equally intense as a drone pilot in Good Kill conveys every stage, every emotional shift and every quirk of this man’s journey so convincingly that you watch him like you would a time bomb. The film is at once a throwback to the type of film ‘they just don’t make anymore’ and something so unpredictably fresh and disorientating that it will leave you – with arguably the most abrupt edit of the century – reeling.
But before you deal with that, enjoy Alexander Dynan’s (Dog Eat Dog) beautifully atmospheric lighting and all the wonderful detail that reconnects us to Bergman while distinguishing this film’s more contemporary era and American setting. As Toller conducts a tour of the historic church for a visiting family, he mentions that there is a small gift shop next to the broken church organ. They ask for a T-shirt, but, this being ‘Super Size Me’ America, there are only small sizes left.
You can watch the film trailer here: