- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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- learning MS/MP
Man, there was such tension in this review. The detail with which you describe the film is so strong it allows me to imagine it in my own mind, even though I’ve never seen it (though I’ve wanted to for a while/also having seen Winter Light possibly helps). Of course there’s also that tension over the grade, which you mentioned before would be raised: is it a MS now? A MP? There were times I had to leave the page to go look at something else over the magnitude of the anticipation.
Very excited, just purchased from Amazon (on sale) on the strength of your review and Metacritic. I can not think of a single movie with both strong review here and Metacritic that I did not enjoy, plus I love Ethan Hawke and Paul Schrader
@James Trapp- Great- enjoy
@Drake – very impressed with both the film and Ethan Hawke’s performance which might be the best of his career (or at least in the conversation). It just does not seem like these types of films are being made anymore, that is something with this serious subject matter looked at with such intelligence.
I was also impressed that Schrader was able to make a film that on the surface would seem uncinematic and more like a play and make it cinematic with some brilliant scenes including but not limited to some of the scenes referenced on this page; the levitation scene, the purple sky, Pepto Bismal, etc.
Also impressed by Cedric the Entertainer, I know he’s known for being a stand up comedian and has acted in comedy’s but this was some high quality acting and he does not get blown away in the key scene with Hawke towards the end
Also very excited to revisit Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, even considered a full on Bresson study but too many directors and not even time! But will definitely find time to watch Country Priest
@James Trapp- Very happy to hear this- thanks for sharing.
Between this and Mishima which do you think is better? Or are they too close and you want a bit more time to reflect on this one before deciding?
@Zane- Yeah I’m not sure- I have a page for The Card Counter coming in a few days as well. Man is Schrader one of the most underrated auteurs of all-time.
It is disappointing especially given the buzz around his screenplays for Scorsese.
@Drake – Great review! You make a strong case for these being the best Schrader movie. It’s definitely one of Schrader best (along with Blue Collar, Light Sleeper and Affliction, haven’t watched Mishima yet) but after my one viewing I’m there yet. Will keep your review in mind if I ever rewatch it.)
Really interested in your Card Counter review. Personally I was disappointed by it. After the focus of this movie, it felt half-baked to me.
@Mad Mike- thank you- much appreciated. Interesting- we’re going to be on different sides for The Card Counter. I found it to be quite an impressive companion piece to First Reformed.
@Drake – I wanted to clarify that I meant that I’m NOT there yet regarding such a high esteem for First Reformed. Sorry, if that confused you.
Well, then I’m really waiting for that review. Maybe you will change my mind about some things.))
I should probably just wait until the 2017 page to see, but how high among the best performances of the year do you think Hawke will land? Is he better here than Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread? I am asking Drake but also for the opinions of everyone else.
How does Amanda Seyfried’s performance here compare to her acting in Mank in your opinion? I think she gives a great supporting performance in both, and the substantial personality differences between the two characters, Mary and Marion, shows her strong range. I think I might choose Mank as her best role, although First Reformed is probably the better movie and the masterpiece among the two. However, I would be open to arguments that she acts better in First Reformed or that Mank is a better movie.
@Graham- I think she’s good in both- but I do think she is better in Mank