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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

First Reformed (2017), Paul Schrader [3/5]

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

The key to understanding what First Reformed tries to achieve is Schrader’s identification with slow cinema. In interviews, Paul Schrader speaks of his transcendental style of filmmaking: holding shots too long, avoiding cutting, always withholding from the audience and using dead time to create a sense of place, a grounded moment in time beyond images on a screen.

Drawing from Bresson's minimalism, Ozu's withholding and restraint, and De Sica's sense of a film space that's happening beyond the audience's purview, Schrader believes he can turn the viewer into an active participant in the world of the film as opposed to a passive reactionary to formal stimulation. Importantly, Schrader says once this viewer is leaning towards him, perhaps even bored with all the dead time he has given them, he has to free them. He has do something unexpected. Here, unfortunately, is where the transcendental style fails in First Reformed.

Like The Card Counter (2021), Schrader's First Reformed (2017) is so austere and without release that it becomes dramatically toothless; one gets the sense that these movies and their performances could triumph if only Schrader let loose, uncaged his leads, and gave them a space more human and interactive, a dose of Cassavetes' cinéma vérité or Scorsese's operatic artifice. Ozu’s films, like Tokyo Story, achieve this freedom because after hours of restraint, the characters that we have come to sympathize with like the tragically lovable Noriko break down and strike the viewer with their tears, with raw emotion, with some kind of transcendance.

The lack of this in First Reformed is to no fault of its actors. Ethan Hawke is stellar as vulnerable, utopian loner Ernest Toller (just as Oscar Isaac delivered a world-class performance as Tell Tillich in Counter) but the reserved directing and dead time saps his vitality. Schrader boxes his leads away in minimal spaces with no force to play off of and then cuts away before the explosive payoff that the film has been building towards.

Ethan Hawke's Pastor Toller spends much of the film standing in rooms of white and brown, staring at walls, writing in his journal by candlelight, and slowly chipping away at his own bulwark against nihilism. They are visually delicious and moody microcosms of Toller's internal psyche, a man who convinced his son to deploy to Iraq only to lose his child and then his wife before finding the church. Now even that church which gave him a rudder in life is slipping from his grasp after Toller uncovers the church's immoral source of funding from a corrupt "Balq" energy executive and becomes steadily radicalized by the manifestos and later suicide of a despairing environmental activist who had sought his ministry for guidance.

As much as these scenes are a joy to look at, smoldering with the existential angst of Taxi Driver and the moody austerity of Terrence Malick, they never build to a release. In the final shot, Hawke's grand plan of environmental jihad is thwarted and the film ends with him embracing and kissing Amanda Seyfried's pregnant Mary. It's nearly an identical remake of the closing of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). The ostracized male lead, trapped in restraints of metal, kisses the woman he’s been longing for the entire film as the music swells. But what was gained or explored? What was transcended? This is the same feeling I had at the end of Card Counter.

It's nice that the nihilistic dread of Toller was released through compassionate love as opposed to explosive vengeance, but the ending fails to pay off all the dead time we have endured and the earlier seeds of dramatic tension (not to mention the unfired Chekhov's gun of the suicide vest).

For all its narrative flaws, I was struck by Schrader's unique ability to capture the sad liminal spaces of capitalist middle America: the strip malls, motel marquees, casino floors, franchised waffle diners, souvenir shops. He's one of the only directors today who uses these aesthetics as backdrops for his outcast characters, underscoring their estrangement from an empty, decayed society. They are reminiscent of Mark Fisher's criticism of the bureaucratic banality of call centers in Capitalist Realism or of the photo above, a 2008 shot of I-70 in Breezewood, Pennsylvania which has become a viral meme and visual stand-in for a critique of capitalist America's commercialized aesthetics and branded culture. His movies capture this feeling with a brilliant poignancy and subtlety, and while I often marveled at the moody angst Schrader was able to achieve in First Reformed, I left disappointed and without transcendence. 3/5.

P.S. If you're interested in Schrader, I would recommend his 1985 triumph Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters. This is a remarkable film that everyone should see.

Miles Stephenson

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