Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston
Written by: Paul Schrader
Directed by: Paul Schrader
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violent images
Running Time: 108
Date: 05/18/2018

First Reformed (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Priest of Burden

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Coming out of the same film-student club as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, etc., Paul Schrader has always been a highly intelligent filmmaker, but an uneven one. He has made some notable films (Blue Collar, American Gigolo, Cat People, Light Sleeper, Affliction, etc.) and a number of not-very-notable ones. Film scholars might agree that his best work would be his four screenplays for Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead). But now he has given us a genuine masterpiece, a tough, meticulous howl of pain and passion, First Reformed.

When I spoke to Schrader at the SF Film Festival a month or so back, he told me that he had resisted making spiritual or contemplative films throughout his career, even though he was clearly drawn to them. He is a church-going man himself, a Calvinist, and his early film studies included a published book, newly updated, about Transcendental style in the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, and Robert Bresson. One of his earliest produced works, Taxi Driver was heavily influenced by Bresson's Pickpocket (1959), and perhaps it was Scorsese who did not hesitate to draw out the spiritual side of Schrader's script, as well as on the subsequent three scripts.

But now that Schrader has embraced the spiritual, he has delivered a film worthy of Scorsese, worthy of Taxi Driver, and has perhaps even completed some kind of full circle in his career. First Reformed, too, is inspired by Bresson, but Diary of a Country Priest (1950) instead of Pickpocket. It's fearless, yet utterly controlled, terribly moving and beautifully terrifying. Ethan Hawke stars as minister Toller, and it's an aching performance that demands our admiration. He works in a small church whose 250th anniversary approaches. It's currently more of a museum and gift shop than a real church; most folks prefer the dazzling, modern Abundant Life, overseen by Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, credited here under his real name, Cedric Kyles, so as not to imply that this is a comedy).

Toller decides to keep a diary, written in total honesty, which will be destroyed in a year's time. His soul is in question. He seems unhappy, perhaps sick, and he drinks too much, but he still believes in his mission. A few die-hards attend his sermons, including Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who finds more solace in the old church than in the new one. She approaches Toller and asks him to speak with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael's obsessive research on climate change has led him to refuse to have a child with Mary; he believes that the world is too far gone. In a very long sequence, lasting over ten minutes, the two men debate, and it's fascinating. Later, Toller finds himself exhilarated by the encounter. But Michael has already made some tough decisions.

First Reformed is framed in a narrower aspect ratio, 1:1.33 (similar to last year's A Ghost Story), which sets it apart from normal movies. This is about suffering and souls, rather than vistas. The movie is paced not slowly, but deliberately, as if to give viewers time to consider whatever gods they believe in or the nature of the universe. The sound design is eerily quiet. The weather is cold, and things have a wintry feeling, hard and a little dry. There are moments of anger or disgust, or perhaps even regret at the state of the world today, not only the climate crisis, but the preference for the shiny new corporate church (shown in stark, high angles) and the emphasis on selling hats and t-shirts at the old one. (Money is the new god?)

There is a very strange sequence somewhere near the third act, wherein Mary asks Toller to do a relaxing exercise with her; she will lay on top of him (fully clothed) and just rest there, letting the weight of their bodies press together. As if in a dream, the two begin floating, soaring over the world and viewing the destruction and chaos, mainly caused by the climate crisis. It's an off-putting sequence, and for a while, I resisted what I perceived as preaching. But eventually I saw how this sequence fit into the fabric of the film. It's like a triangle, with man, God, and the earth; man was given the earth, he has destroyed it, and now must face God. (One of the movie's refrains is the question: Will God forgive us?)

As I reach this last paragraph, I find I'm at a loss to describe my further feelings on this remarkable film. To be honest, I have barely touched upon it. I'd really love the chance to see it again, to perhaps help solidify all the swirling thoughts and feelings I have. (I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.) So many of its images seem to contain multitudes of themes and feelings, without contradicting or eclipsing each other. It has so many different interpretations, just as Taxi Driver or Diary of a Country Priest do. Like the idea of God Himself, it offers plenty to ponder, but no definitive asnswers. If it's as great as I think it is, this film will be around for decades, and will continue to be studied, analyzed, or just simply experienced. However, if the film is correct and our time here on earth is nearly done, if offers a little bit of spiritual contemplation, a little solace, and a little grace.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray release may not blow your mind in terms of explosive sound or popping color, but it's a solid transfer that does justice to this great film. Schrader provides a fascinating commentary track, and there's a 15-minute featurette with some on-set footage and interviews. The disc also includes optional subtitles, trailers for other A24 and Lionsgate releases, and a digital copy.

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