• Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a slow burn decent into madness (or gradual truth awakening depending on your point of view) that works so well alongside of Schrader’s own Light Sleeper (1992) and his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).
  • Schrader opens with a paced, forward rolling tracking shot on a perfectly centered Dutch style church. From that opening (after the delicate cursive titles) this feels like Schrader’s most focused work—at least since his trio of 1990s films (the aforementioned Light Sleeper, The Comfort of Strangers and 1997’s Affliction) if not ever.
  • Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller and this is his church. Like Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) he is keeping a journal (rendered via voiceover). He calls this a form of prayer because he is often rational, and because you are synched with him via voice-over (like Taxi Driver) it becomes a more and more uncomfortable bond as the film progresses and Toller unravels. If the film (and Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper) owe a debt to Bresson—a large chuck of First Reformed is indebted to Bergman’s Winter Light as well. Philip Ettinger plays the Max von Sydow character here. He is suicidal, lost in a sea of despair- blackness. Here it is not the atom bomb and Cold War getting him down, it is the destruction of the earth and environment. There is a momentous debate between Ettinger’s Michael character and Hawke’s Toller. Schrader’s writing is worthy of a great novel- “the man who says nothing always sounds more intelligent.” There is another dazzling, uncomfortable discourse at the pancake house.
  • Aspect ratio 1.37 : 1—tight- it does seem to hone Schrader’s focus. Schrader says he was partially inspired by Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013).
  • This is a major achievement for Hawke. Gone is his flippant Generation X’er perfect-hair handsome looseness you often see in his Linklater films. He is gloomy here, severe- he has aged. There is a line down the middle of his forehead emphasizing the ware of a stressful life lived. He has Gunnar Björnstrand sternness and intelligence from Winter Light and even lights up his female admirer (Victoria Hill’s Esther looking just like Ingrid Thulin’s Marta with the glasses) by saying “I despise you.”
  • This is a film that rewards repeat visits—as Toller spirals out of control (health, alcoholism,) there are less and less people in the pews. I’m sure there are other details and evidence of his deterioration I’ll pick up with a third and fourth viewing.

Visually, only Mishima may match’s First Reform’s ambition from Schrader. He perfectly sets the frame of Mary’s (Amanda Seyfried) living room. He comes back to this at the 64-minute mark when she is on the left, Hawke’s Toller is on the right—the picture is backlit by the windows so the characters appear almost in silhouette both flanked perfectly by the lights.1:37 box aspect ratio—I think this both a nod to Bresson and Schrader’s way of saying this is a monocular story- one person is the focus- he also uses voice over narration to align ourselves with Hawke (you can’t help but not be aligned a little with voice over) which of course becomes discomforting as we move along (and he spirals out of control and loses sanity)

  • Schrader riffs on his own homage of Bresson’s stomach cancer and the dissolving tablet in a drink (Taxi Driver) with the Pepto-Bismol in the drink at the 76-minute. This is tied to the visual splendor of the purple sky at the 93-minute mark with the power plant in the background. Hawke’s Toller surveys the land, walks out of the frame, and walks back in as it changes from purple to pink—incredible. This shot, not the Tarkovsky-like levitation (the 83-minute mark), nor the 360-degree Empire Hotel from Vertigo shot final shot in First Reformed, is Schrader’s greatest cinematic moment. Just before the purple sky shot Toller is rolling around in his car like Travis Bickle. Austere- stark mise-en-scene (Dreyer—Ordet) and colors—greys, navy, white, black—vibrant primary colors would look out of place in the film

the gorgeous Pepto Bismal dissolving in whiskey (First Reformed) vs. De Niro’s Travis Bickle watching the effervescent tablet in a glass of water. Gorgeous shot here- one of my favorites in the film

Hawke’s Toller surveys the land, walks out of the frame, and walks back in as it changes from purple to pink—incredible.

This shot, not the Tarkovsky-like levitation (the 83-minute mark), nor the 360-degree Empire Hotel from Vertigo shot final shot in First Reformed, is Schrader’s greatest cinematic moment. Just before the purple sky shot Toller is rolling around in his car like Travis Bickle.

  • No score until the end—much like Pickpocket– Schrader believes you must break the monotone-like transcendental style set in place and established
  • Austere- stark mise-en-scene (Dreyer—Ordet) and colors—greys, navy, white, black—vibrant primary colors would look out of place in the film
  • It’s Schrader’s first film that so closely follows his transcendental style (1972 book he wrote on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer)—the style talks about the viewer almost being lulled to sleep and having to “lean in” as Schrader says—it demands from its audience—as Schrader says you have to eventually break the rules (the swelling music in Pickpocket, the miracle in Ordet, the levitation in Tarkovsky).
  • The story’s formal structure is strong- repetition of the journal writing, drinking, the loneliness- the kept and organized nature of the manicured lawns, rows of pews and clothing
  • Love the intelligent theological sparring—two scenes that are diametrically opposed stick out—we have the first argument with Amanda Seyfried’s (Mary—on purpose I’m sure) husband and Hawke— Hawke has a similar argument later with Cedric the Entertainer but he’s flipped- he’s taken on the other side of the argument now
  • The opening shot is a slow tracking shot in on the church and the final shot is a wild 360 shot of Hawke and Seyfried making out—it’s a stretch but I believe the slow pensive opening tracking shot is the show the form, the austerity and quiet of loneliness, God— and the final wild shot is to contrast and show the uncontrollability and allure of sin—and to poke that transcendental style rhythm.

At the 78-minute mark Schrader (who wrote a book on Ozu) shoots Hawke’s Toller through an open doorway on the right of a very stark room- a perfect frame within a frame. The scenes of just Toller, alone, with his drink, his pen, and his thoughts are just as well written as the attentive theological discussions.

At the 91-minute mark Hawke, in, profile, looking out the window with the large windows in curtains—there is a similar shot in Pasolini’s Salo (I think it is Caterina Boratto). This is another masterful composition- certainly one of the best of 2017. Schrader’s body of work certainly puts forth a strong argument that he is the backbone of the artistic vision (or rather narrative idea/story) behind Taxi Driver. First Reformed shares much with Light Sleeper, American Gigolo and Scorsese’s 1976 (written by Schrader of course) masterpiece—the narrative centers on a loner struggling to find meaning/purpose who slowly spirals out of control.

  • Schrader is intercutting Toller’s inner struggle while intercutting perfectly symmetrical compositions of Marta singing at the altar.
  • Subsequent viewings will help clear this up, but it appears that there are abrupt cuts in two places in the film: right after the Tarkovsky (Mirror, Solaris) levitation moment, and right at the end with the swoon-worthy kiss. This hints at surrealism reading.
  • If this indeed Schrader’s finest work, he delivers it past the age of 70 (71 at the time of release) which is rare.
  • A Must-See film, and I’m leaning even higher maybe as I let the film rattle around my brain for a few days.