By Noel Vera
Directed by Paul Schrader
PAUL SCHRADER’s latest feature First Reformed — his 23rd directing job — is a tiny feature shot around Brooklyn and Queens in only 20 days, on a budget of roughly three and a half million dollars. It’s also arguably his best work to date, or if not his best then somewhere up there.
Ethan Hawke is Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain assigned to run a tourist landmark, the First Reformed, a nearly 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church somewhere in New England (actually the Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston, Queens, NY) and right off Schrader sets the film’s tone with our first glimpse of the church: blinding white clapboard against bleak sky, spike of a bell tower soaring up like an impalement stake, a deliberately sacrilegious (Sacred?) affront to God.
Toller is likely an alcoholic, possibly dying of cancer, definitely struggling in his faith (mainly guilt feelings from advising his son to enlist to go to Iraq, where he is killed). Critics have noted the way Schrader has apparently grafted the doubting, diary-scribbling clergyman (alienated, dying) in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest to the congregation and church in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (apocalyptically depressed, even suicidal) but I’d throw in the kamikaze bravado of Taxi Driver, the suppressed hysteria of Ikiru, the overwhelming dread of I Live in Fear.
Surrounding Toller are characters designed to complement and clash with his slowly crumbling sense of self: his boss Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) who runs the Abundant Life mega church, the real owner of First Reformed; Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the brutish local industrialist who generously underwrites both Abundant Life and the First Reformed’s upcoming 250th anniversary; and Toller’s estranged wife Esther (Victoria Hill) who constantly worries about Toller’s state of mental and physical health.
Not directly involved but brought to Toller’s attention are Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist about to become a father anguished at the increasingly polluted world he’s introducing his child into; and Mary (Amanda Seyfried) Michael’s wife, beautiful and hugely pregnant.
Toller may feel lost but there are folks ready to guide him in their direction: Paster Jeffers wants him to speak at the church’s anniversary and introduce Balq; Balq wants him to stay away from any and all controversial issues (Toller, in giving the oration at a recent funeral, had unwittingly engaged in a political act) — particularly the issue of Balq’s company contaminating nearby rivers (as Toller eventually learns, Michael focused on Balq’s corporate activities). Esther wants Toller to take care of himself, if not actually take her back to take care of him (like Esther in the Bible, she struggles to catch her husband’s attention).
Michael (After the warrior-angel?) doesn’t pressure Toller to do anything; Toller is himself compelled by Michael’s torment. Mary — who cannot possibly be more obviously named — doesn’t do anything but doesn’t need to; the concept of her character is someone in a state of (slightly smudged) grace, for Toller to eventually reach out to and possibly desire. Toller, I suspect, is named after a left-wing playwright who fled the Nazis, came to America to practice with little success, and eventually (tellingly) killed himself.
Schrader unfolds his spare, elegant little tale in the manner of what he has dubbed the Transcendental Style, evoking the camera moves and color palettes (mostly black, white, various shades of gray) and emotional tones of admired filmmakers (the aforementioned Bresson and Bergman, with Carl Th. Dreyer thrown in for good measure). Call the man a stubborn anachronism, a filmmaker who insists in the face of this generation’s handheld cameras and smash-’n’-grab editing on an ascetic’s aesthetics, on a short list of carefully picked details that if shuffled often enough and pondered long enough will hopefully achieve transcendence.
It’s a doomed quest — Schrader never really expects to achieve it, though he does at least hope to leave behind the record of an interesting attempt — partly and arguably because it’s such a cramped style that holds its audience in a claustrophobic vice, a style that, despite the often chill clear air seen onscreen (Bergman’s Winter Light is particularly adept at this oft difficult-to-depict quality), leaves you struggling for breath. More, Schrader is trapped trying to find his way among the feet of giants and knows it; there’s the risk in evoking Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light that the viewer’s thoughts will linger on those older, more venerated titles, forsaking his own.
Salvation comes, I submit, in the form of the third filmmaker in Schrader’s pantheon, Ozu (the full title of his book on the subject: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer).
Where Dreyer is hardly a barrel of laughs and Bresson rarely if ever cracks a smile (there may be a moment — when the priest in Diary shares a motorbike ride with a freshly met acquaintance, the carefree joy at speed and wind is unique in an otherwise oppressively dour film, is possibly unique in all of Bresson’s cinema), Ozu achieves transcendence despite or because of an understated homegrown humor. The kids in I Was Born But..., the actors’ shenanigans in Floating Weeds both original and color remake — even Tokyo Story has its comic moments, Ozu taking his cue from Leo McCarey (on whose Make Way for Tomorrow the Japanese filmmaker’s masterwork is loosely inspired) that the rigor and pacing of comedy is the best way to bring down an audience’s guard, to more effectively drive home the tragic bodkin.
Schrader in turn takes his cue from Ozu, draws on simpler, pulpier sources (his own Taxi Driver for one), goes for the deadpan low-key laugh — and, whaddaya know, Transcendental Style works just fine in provoking such laughs. The aforementioned funeral takes place at the shores of a river choked with industrial waste; per instructions, Toller has the specially brought in Abundant Life choir (with Esther directing) sing Neil Young’s “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” The First Reformed church’s quiet halls contrast with Abundant Life’s humming modern offices and canteen — crumbling museum piece compared to religion as practiced today. When First Reformed fills up with folks waiting for Toller to begin the celebration, Toller has the Armor of God strapped on, trying to muster the courage to step out. He looks out the window and — it’s Ethan Hawke’s finest moment, when the dichotomy of environment vs. corporate interests, collaboration vs. resistance, good vs. evil is suddenly thrown into question, as if Travis Bickle were slapped hard across the face, someone yelling in his ear “What do you think you’re doing?!” It’s Schrader attempting to transcend the stubbornly old-fashioned Style he has often admired and emulated: may not totally work, but I like it just fine and it’s a fascinating attempt.
The DVD was released on Aug. 21.