While writer-director Paul Schrader gets serious from the first minute of First Reformed, Schrader lets the full first act unfurl before he ups the ante in his new film, First Reformed by showing us at the 35-minute mark a suicide vest packed with TNT. That’s a long slow fuse, and the mark of a filmmaker who either has faith in his audience or has stopped caring whether anyone out there is watching. Well, I am.
Schrader has written 24 films and directed 20. It’s been mostly glorious, and always aspirational. His is a terrific filmography.
Schrader wrote The Yakuza back in 1974, then Taxi Driver two years later for frequent collaborator and Catholic skeptic, Martin Scorsese, including Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead. Add in Blue Collar, Hard Core, American Gigolo, Mishima, Mosquito Coast, Patty Hearst, The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleeper, Affliction and on and on.
For better than 40 years Schrader has tried to write for meaning not money, which commands my respect if not always my affection. He has sometimes -- or make that often -- beaten the audience to death for its lack of righteous anger at an America following shiny objects and false idols. That has been a feature of his best work, and his worst, perhaps owing to a lifelong pull between his Michigan Calvinist upbringing and the pull on him of decency on a wounded planet.
Schrader has in his later years only gotten more unsparing in his critique of corruption, American-style. First Reformed is the name of a little church in upstate NY’s Albany County that is the setting for this story. It was actually filmed in Oyster Bay, Long Island and Harrison in Westchester County, which are a little too pretty for upstate but make for striking images by Alex Dynan, Schrader’s cinematographer-acolyte. It’s there that a young woman named Mary — hmm -- shows Rev. Ernst Toller a suicide vest she’s found in the basement of her modest home. It belongs to her husband, Michael, who at 33 is about the age when activists become fatalists.
Michael and Mary are expecting a child, but Michael is so consumed by his depression over the impending environmental catastrophe that will overtake his unborn baby’s life, that he wants to abort. That was before Mary—played by Amanda Seyfried in her best work since Lovelace in 2013 -- finds the TNT apparel in the man cave and calls the Reverend Toller. Can he talk to Michael? The backstory on Toller is that he’s ex -military and encouraged his son to enlist and fight in Iraq, where he died six months into his tour.
Toller’s marriage fell apart, as did he, reconstituting himself as a pastor and given a small church to tend on the verge of its 250th anniversary by the Reverend Jeffers, played by Cedric the Entertainer, who runs the Abundant Life Church just down the road. Of course, Abundant Life is a huge starship, bursting with wealth for the well off, and it’s ballsy of Schrader to have the axis of evil run from a white corporate parishioner to an obviously well-fed Black corporate preacher.
Which is how we get to here, where a young man, despairing over the world, is ministered to by a pastor at 46 having his own crisis of faith, as all good priests in literature or film usually do. As played by Ethan Hawke, who my guess is gets nominated for this role, Toller is the echo of the country priest earlier created by filmmakers Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Lars Von Trier to name a few who have wrestled with faith in the modern era. Hawke’s Toller, sick, maybe dying, doubting his faith under the volcano, is the embodiment of the clergyman you want sitting across from you in your time of despair:
Paul Schrader started off as a film critic. He is a wonderful talker about film, I’ve done it once or twice a long time ago when I edited Film Comment, with a keen eye for what’s right about a film, where it climbs and where it dies. Moreover, he’s alive to the moment in the culture and in our politics. Which is not something a lot of filmmakers consciously are.
As Schrader has gotten older, he turns 72 next month, he’s proved quieter than in his Travis Bickle / Taxi Driver days. You’d expect that. But he is no less intense about corruption and hypocrisy, which are the twin tracks on which our institutions of church and state cross paths.
The script for this film is more disciplined than in his younger days, even as it burns just as hot. Age hasn’t set him free to speak his mind, he was always that. It’s made him a better filmmaker. Over his career, his lead characters have been world weary, men mostly, sometimes women, who are awoken, as is the fashion to say. They are called to act on what they see, if not to rebalance the bankrupt moral universe, then to register a small futile protest against the fix that’s in it.
In First Reformed, the Rev. Toller is ready to go the limit in Act 3, remember that suicide vest from Act 1. And you’ll just have to see it, it’s doing very well in limited release, to have the argument I did with how it ends. I’d like to think Schrader would like that. But if we know anything in First Reformed, it’s that we’re all human, and as I saw somebody say in another film once, nobody’s perfect.
Of course, you can bag the whole thing and duck into the Incredibles 2. And while it may not save our souls, it’s going to save Pixar. It’s something I plan to do with my daughter soon.