Sign up for the Film Comment Letter today to get original film writing delivered to your inbox every week! >>

Review: First Reformed

(Paul Schrader, USA, A24, Opening May 18)

I think in the whole world things are going very badly . . . People are becoming more materialistic and cruel . . . Cruel by laziness, by indifference, egotism . . . Money is becoming their God. God doesn’t exist anymore for many.” This is Robert Bresson in an interview with Paul Schrader in Paris in 1976 during a production hiatus on his penultimate film, The Devil, Probably (1977), a staggering portrait of eco-hysteria. Bresson wanted the film to express “the mess we have made of everything . . . We shall kill ourselves by trying to go on living.” This rigid fatalism is clearly shared by Schrader, who over the next two decades amassed a filmography rooted in a material world surrounded by corruption and ruin and inhabited by lonely characters who wrestle with their own conflicted souls.

With The Canyons (2013), a portrait of millennial derangement in Hollywood, and Dog Eat Dog (2016), a shadowy, surreal voyage of three ex-cons who kidnap the baby of a rival gang member, his cinema found its nethermost nihilistic abandonment. First Reformed marks a considerable turning point, a film à thèse about the struggle for grace and faith in our modern world of hyperreality and despair, especially when the various stopgaps offered by society—organized religion, political institutions, ecological activism—seem variously counterfeit. A breathtaking, taut work possessed of an otherworldly meditative stillness, it feels at once hauntingly out of time and haltingly urgent.

In a small town in upstate New York, the First Reformed church—about to celebrate its 250th anniversary—holds the distinction of being the oldest continually operating church in Albany. Its functions folded into the larger, more corporate church administration nearby, it has been reduced to little more than a historical showpiece for tourists. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, bearing more gravitas and restrained sadness than ever), is the sole employee living and working at First Reformed—a country priest who begins writing a diary as an exercise “to set down all the events factually of my day without hiding anything.” He is a drinking man who may be dying, tortured by his past life in the secular world and the loss of his son in the Iraq War.

Reverend Toller forms an unexpected bond with a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) when she seeks counseling for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmental activist who does not believe they should be bringing any new life into this world. A shocking turn of events causes Reverend Toller to take on Michael’s ideals and missions as he begins to notice the increasing moral rot surrounding him and as his body deteriorates. His diaries chronicle the days leading up to a decisive, cataclysmic moment on the day consecrating the church’s anniversary.

First Reformed is bookended by two of the most breathtaking sequences in recent memory. The opening shot, preceded by the ambient sounds of birds chirping and wind blowing over black screen, shows the church slowly and gracefully coming into relief—like an apparition—in a fade-in tracking shot. That is followed by three successive silent shots of the building’s exteriors in clipped Bressonian beats, evoking the feeling of a sacred space and the rhythm of ritual. The pared-down style in the beginning of the film, matching that of its protagonist’s routines, portrays a tactile and lucid world.

As Toller’s physical, moral, and spiritual torment escalates to a metaphysical degree, Schrader builds baroqueness into the film’s architectonics, adding artifice to austerity with soundtrack music, mobile shots, and even special effects. A neon pink Mishima sky is draped across a toxic landfill at sunrise; at another point, lying together and listening to each other’s breaths, Toller and Mary begin to levitate, drifting over backdrops of the cosmos, landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes before images of environmental disasters fill the screen. In these stunning scenes, the film’s scale shifts from the granular to the global and the cosmic. Toller begins to watch online videos—framed in stark contrast to the deliberate slowness of the film—of the ecological and human terrors from around the world as he drinks Pepto-Bismol with his whiskey, and a sense of toxicity permeates the film inside and out. The final shot is the film’s altarpiece: a weightless camera glides around the Toller and Mary in their rapturous embrace, as the emphatic sounds of the choir singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” reverberate.

Although religious symbols and themes have often found their way into Schrader’s film work, First Reformed marks the first time in which he has applied elements of transcendental style—defined by Bresson as extolled in his seminal book on the subject Transcendental Style in Film—to his own filmmaking. Early in his filmmaking career, Schrader was occupied with exploring the pathological lure of sex and violence in narrative cinema. In his new film, spirituality is not only present in the film’s theme but also in its language (in Schrader’s terms, both the “what” and the “how”). It is interspersed with meditative scenes, such as those of Toller simply getting ready in his bathroom, which make the viewer aware of time passing, and in which duration takes on a phenomenological significance.

Singular in its distillation of Schrader’s decades-spanning preoccupations of film criticism and filmmaking as well as his religious background, First Reformed is a rare object unified in subject and style. It is a work of art that reaches for the divine, the ecstatic, the ineffable. As in Bresson’s films, it embodies the eternal Pascalian paradox that God is invisible but present in his worshippers (God: “You would not seek me, if you had not found me”). First Reformed lays bare the work of a filmmaker operating as both spirit-guide and social critic, gravely and passionately showing humankind’s destruction of their world for profit. “Can God forgive us?” is the question repeated throughout. In our ever-toxic atmosphere, First Reformed is a new form of prayer.

Aliza Ma is a New York–based programmer and writer specializing in Asian cinema.