First Reformed is Paul Schrader’s best film in years

The filmmaker’s near-legendary status comes into focus in a movie that feels like his Rosetta stone.

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

Paul Schrader’s first contributions to the film world weren’t as a director or as a screenwriter, but as a film critic. Raised in a strict Calvinist household where he didn’t see a film until he was 17, Schrader was perhaps logically drawn to a more contemplative cinema as a critic. This led him to write the book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer in which he drew parallels between the three filmmakers and defined their approach as “transcendental”. The transcendental style hasn’t always necessarily applied to the films that Schrader made later in his career — hard to imagine drawing parallels between Ozu and, say, Light of Day starring Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett — but the spirit of those filmmakers has always loomed in his work… until First Reformed.

First Reformed draws explicitly on three foundational stones of not only Schrader’s style theory, but of film itself: Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Dreyer’s Ordet and Bergman’s Winter Light. (Though Bergman wasn’t officially a part of the original theory, it’s not very hard to fit him in there.) It is, in many ways, the Rosetta stone of Schrader’s oeuvre and a fitting epilogue to what Schrader started some 45 years ago. It’s also his best film in years by a considerable margin.

Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) works at First Reformed, a small church in New England whose primary vocation is touristic; he gives sermons in front of rarely more than half-a-dozen people. The appointment was a bit of an act of charity from Pastor Jeffors (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer), who heads a huge corporate megachurch, after Toller’s life went off the rails following the death of his son in Iraq. (A former chaplain, Toller holds himself accountable for sending his son off to fight a pointless war.) Soon after Toller decides to keep a daily journal that he sees as a form of prayer, he is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a parishioner expressing concern about her husband (Philip Ettinger). An environmental activist, he has become disconnected from the world following an arrest in Canada; now that Mary is pregnant, he wishes to abort the child as he struggles with the idea of bringing a child into a world already on the brink of collapse. The questions stir something up in Toller that he’s been actively working at quieting with alcohol, bringing him to a full-blown crisis of faith.

Lit as flat as possible and shot in a boxy “fullscreen” format reminiscent of the directors Schrader owes so much to, First Reformed is about as far from a feel-good movie as you can imagine. There’s almost no music, save for some ominous tones and a couple of hymns; the camera barely moves at all, and often stays static on Hawke sitting contemplatively at his desk. It feels like overt pastiche at first since we’ve become so unaccustomed to this type of meditative (dare I say transcendental) pace in American films, but there’s so much to unpack in First Reformed that it reminds us why movies used to be like this in the first place.

When I saw Scorsese’s Silence a few years back, I wrote of the difficulty I had to relate to someone having a crisis of faith as someone whose own relationship to faith was one of apathy. (If you’ll recall, one of the main conflicts in that film is that the priests are constantly being forced to renounce their God by stepping on a small tile in his image.) First Reformed takes place in a world where most have already apostatised and faith has very little to do with the inevitability of our demise. As Toller spins out of control, he meets with Jeffers, asking him whether he really believes that God is planning to destroy his creation. “He did it once already,” says Jeffers. “For 40 days and 40 nights.”

It’s heady, contemplative stuff that speaks to the general malaise of the times and the rare film about faith where you’re likely to get more of it having studied Dreyer and Bergman than the Old Testament. Schrader finds a perfect lead in Hawke, and even the film’s two ecstatic/out-of-character moments (which rang somewhat false to me the first time I saw the film) have an undeniable power. First Reformed is a major work by a major talent, likely to be studied alongside the sacred texts that inspired it. ■

First Reformed opens in theatres on Friday, June 8. Watch the trailer here: