A Letter to the Philistines from the Apostle Paul Schrader
There is a remarkable quality of the ascetic in Paul Schrader's new film, First Reformed, his latest film exploring religion—although you could make a case that everything he's done has had something to do with it, given the director's Calvinist upbringing. But, this one hits the hammered nail on the head and may be his most completely satisfying film he's ever made...although it may confound and frustrate an audience, be they of a religious bent or not. It's an unqualified and non-denominational success. And it's so simple...and so threadbare and low-budget ($3.5 million), it could almost be monk-like.
Take the aspect ratio, for inescapable instance: First Reformed is shot in the Academy ratio of 1.375:1, that boxy shape that was abandoned in the 1950's for the more heretical widescreen formats designed to lure people out of their homes and away from their own flickering square TV screens. That shape is the shape of old movies and its breadth is so humble, it is practically orthodox.
Reverand Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a former Army Chaplain, been most of his life. He was married. Not any more. When his son came of age, he wanted to join the Army and although his mother despised the idea, his Chaplain father didn't discourage it. Six months later, he was dead in Iraq. The marriage collapsed The reverend left the Forces and through a mega-church called Abundant Life, has become the pastor of an historic landmark in the town of Snowbridge, New York, the First Reformed, which was a way-station on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves on their way to Canada. The church is a tourist attraction (with gift shop) and the congregation is spotty, at best.
"I'm going to keep a journal." he says at the beginning of the film. In that journal, he will pour he thoughts, his dreams, his disappointments—even in the writing—an act he seems as a form of communication, even a sort of prayer. At the end of the 12 months, he will shred it, and burn the shreds leaving no trace behind. Writing a journal (like writing a little-read blog) is a solitary, selfish act, but like any form of communication, it can clear the cob-webs, garner perspective, lay bread-crumbs, and even reveal perspective and truth. It can also mire you in a perpetual loop of self-reinforcement, much like the rabbit-hole Travis Bickle burrows into in one of Schrader's early scripts Taxi Driver. And like Bickle, the Rev. Toller is another of "God's Lonely" men of the writer-director's devising.
Toller is passive. His manner is open, but doesn't reveal much—perhaps because he doesn't have much to reveal that he doesn't channel through his journal. He certainly doesn't reveal much passion or zeal or fervor, and it's reflected by the low attendance at the church.
That changes when he's approached by Mary (naturally) (Amanda Seyfried) who is seeking counselling for her husband, named Michael (Philip Ettinger), not Joseph, who is an environmental activist. Mary is pregnant (naturally and presumably not immaculately) and Michael is encouraging her not to have the child—with the Earth beyond its sustainable tipping point, he is questioning the wisdom of bringing a child into this crumbling world (at the child's age of 50, current coastlines will be under two feet of water). "It's a little girl. What do you say when she looks into your eyes and says 'You knew about this all along.'"Toller falls back on some yin/yang comparisons and calls upon the mystical—"Courage is the answer to despair. Reason has no answers."
Then, Michael hits him with the ultimate question: "Can God forgive us for what we've done to this world?"
Toller deflects: "Who can know the mind of God?"
"I felt like I was Jacob wrestling with the angels." he writes later. "It was exhilarating."
Exhilarating. That's got to be a charge for someone who's clinically depressed, and that's what Toller is—going through the motions, cutting himself off from people and differing perspectives, which just might show him a way out of his funk...if he was looking for it. But, when the person you grasp onto is also a depressive, and is, in fact, a suicidal depressive, the risk is to stay in your dark comfort zone, but also jump into another rabbit-hole, one that only seems new and different, but is also deeper.
Did I say suicidal? Who said anything about suicide? Well, Toller gets a text from Michael—"Meet me at the park"—and when he gets there, Michael is dead, having blown his head off with a shotgun. Toller calls the police, and goes with them to inform Mary. Mary has previously seen that Michael had created a suicide vest and informed Toller, who took it away, where it was squirreled away in the garage, away from prying eyes. The discovery that it was missing may well have prompted Michael's final act. But, what was he going to do with it? It couldn't have been any good.
Toller follows the specifications of Michael's will—to proceed over his funeral, scattering his ashes at a toxic waste dump, a dump created by the town's chief business, a paper mill and chemical plant run by Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), who happens to be one of the biggest contributors to Abundant Life and is spear-heading the celebration of the First Reformed's 250th anniversary. A large event is planned with the governor, mayor, and Balq all in attendance, At a lunch meeting between Balq, Toller and Abundant Life's pastor, the Rev. Joel Jeffords (Cedric the Entertainer), Balq reads Toller the riot actor for making Michael's funeral a political act about climate change, which Toller defends as the man's wishes, which he knew because he was counselling him. "You counselled him and then he shot himself..." Balq barks back. "Well, I think before you criticize others, you should take a hard look at yourself, Reverend."Toller does take a hard look, but at Michael's laptop and all the research Michael had done in his activism. And more and more, he starts to become obsessed.
So, you have a self-isolating man spirographing his own thoughts, you expose him to ideas that have just enough intersection with his own, ideas that alarm him and touch him simultaneously, then you put in his hands a weapon and a target and you start the clock until it counts down. Schrader was editing First Reformed when he noticed how similar it was to his earlier Taxi Driver, but you don't have to have seen that film to connect the dots and see the fire on the horizon. As Toller's resolve crystallizes, he becomes distracted by Mary, who is still dealing with Michael's suicide.
At one point, in his spartanly furnished rectory, she mentions something she misses about Michael—they used to lie together, feet touching feet, hands touching hands, face to face, aware of each other's breath, heart-beat, pulse. When Toller agrees to do the ritual with her, it is non-sexual, but transcendant, like an out-of-body experience, floating above the floor, imagining flying over beautiful, pure vistas that gradually darken, become sullied and polluted. Talk about losing the moment.You know how Taxi Driver ended (I assume)—with a bloody catharsis, that becomes misrepresented in the culture as a heroic act, when it was actually a murderous rampage born out of frustration for not having pulled off an assassination. First Reformed ramps up to just such a crisis-point, that is potentially horrifying. One starts to feel one's palms sweat the closer one gets to that Anniversary celebration, even as Toller begins to behave irrationally and starts to break. Oh Lord, here we go again.
And, just when the guy was about to quit making movies.