‘First Reformed’ Imagines a Stunning Dark Night of the Soul

At long last, Paul Schrader’s cinematic masterpiece.
‘First Reformed’ Imagines a Stunning Dark Night of the Soul
Image: Courtesy A24

I have been waiting most of my adult life for Paul Schrader to direct a great film.

In 1972, at the age of 26, Schrader penned a small, academic tome about the films of Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Yasujirō Ozu called Transcendental Style in Film. Two years later, he shared a screenplay credit with Robert Towne on Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza. His next writing credit was for the film that laid one of the cornerstones of Martin Scorsese’s considerable legacy: Taxi Driver. It seemed then only a matter of time before Schrader emerged from the shadows of his peers in the “Movie Brat” generation, destined to be as successful filming his own scripts as he was in writing them for others.

Perhaps more than a few Christians were heartened as much by Schrader’s path to success as by the early films to which he contributed. Part of Schrader’s legend was his strict Calvinist upbringing—it is said that his parents did not allow him to watch movies until he was 18. A graduate of Calvin College, his success provided hope that artists and scholars could escape the Christian bubble and be taken seriously in their own right rather than only as part of the chorus in the newly developing “Christian” art subculture.

Schrader’s early films—Hardcore, American Gigolo, and Cat People—were not bad, but they had a seedy, overwrought style and tone that unquestionably translated better to the screen for Scorsese than they did for his scribe. By the time the pair teamed up on a disastrous adaptation of the controversial Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese’s reputation was strong enough to withstand that film’s commercial failure. But while Schrader continued to write and direct, his films (excepting perhaps Affliction) were increasingly met with shrugs rather than cheers. He was fired from Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist and replaced with the director of Die Hard 2 and Cutthroat Island. The Canyons, a bad noir film, is pretty much what you would expect from a Bret Easton Ellis script starring Lindsay Lohan, getting most of its play sandwiched in between Real Sex 17 and Red Shoe Diaries on whatever cable channel needs late-night filler programming.

After that, I pretty much gave up on Schrader.

So when I say First Reformed is the Schrader film I had stopped waiting for, stopped even hoping for, it’s not just pull-quote baiting. For anyone who longs for stylistically informed, spiritually serious films for and about religious people, First Reformed is a forgotten wish finally come true.

First Reformed is not, however, an easy film to digest, especially if viewers are unfamiliar with the works of the directors who influenced Schrader’s adoption of what he calls the transcendental style. Ethan Hawke plays Revered Toller, a burnt-out, ailing (possibly dying) head of a small New York church that is more tourist attraction than active house of worship. Toller’s wife left him after their son was killed during his military service, and he has been living with despair for so long it’s no longer clear, even to him, whether he’s in a dark night of the soul or has passed through to the sickness unto death.

By day Toller maintains an all-will-be-well serenity, while at night he pours out his anguished thoughts in a journal he promises himself he will burn before its contents are ever revealed. A pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her husband, an environmental activist who sees no point in bringing an innocent life into a world already doomed to a fiery climate-change-induced death. In counseling, Toller can force the orthodox messages of faith and hope past his clenched teeth—but he’s nowhere near as convincing as when he shares his own inner demons with the man to assure him that he can relate to his struggles.

In the meantime, the megachurch down the road is footing the bill for First Reformed’s rededication ceremony. The celebration is corporately sponsored by one of the megachurch’s biggest donors, who is also one of the state’s biggest industrial polluters. Beneath a veneer of servile appreciation, Toller seethes with resentment toward the men to whom he is beholden—and toward himself for allowing himself to be beholden to them.

As it moves towards its climax, First Reformed captures so many of the qualities that make the films of Schrader’s artistic idols beloved by people of faith. It illustrates how theological debates matter substantively to how we live on a daily level. It acknowledges pain, doubt, and the ever-present shadow of despair. The film may level critiques at institutional religion, but personal faith is presented as something more than just a cultural or political tribal allegiance. In Toller’s passionate self-flagellation, we perhaps even catch a glimpse of a seed of truth in The Last Temptation that could never fully sprout: Our greatest human temptation is not carnal pleasures, but the promise of an end to spiritual suffering.

One nagging question remains, however: Can any work this derivative be considered a major artistic achievement? We live in an age where innovation and originality win the lion’s share of critical praise, even though a list of our most popular and financially successful films is increasingly populated with remakes and sequels. Sure, cataloging the film’s copious references and antecedents will make critics feel smart—but does that just make First Reformed fan service for those who share Schrader’s obvious affinity for Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Ingmar Bergman?

The line between skillful homage and hackish knock-off is an admittedly fuzzy one, but Schrader’s film is on the right side of it. First Reformed is not a remake of Diary of a Country Priest, even if it shares with Bresson’s film the central conceit of a physically sick and spiritually tormented minister of the gospel wrestling with his own conscience. Reverend Toller is not Roman Catholic, and his conflicts with the pastor of the megachurch give the film a contemporary, American flavor. A montage of environmental devastation evokes The Devil, Probably, but Schrader’s protagonist is middle-aged, not a college student, and his despair comes across as more informed by his personal suffering than by impotent rationalism. A scene with two characters lying together is lifted straight out of Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice, but the relationship between the two characters is very different here. Consequently, while the effect of their entanglement is visually similar, the potential meanings inferred from that effect are markedly different.

Those examples are meant to illustrate that Schrader is not simply imitating or even channeling the other directors. He is, however, adopting their film vocabulary in order to tell his own story. Paul Thomas Anderson borrows from Max Ophüls. Tom Tykwer acknowledges the influence of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Ernst Lubitsch. J. J. Abrams cites Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, and Terrence Malick as his muses. Steven Spielberg’s work bears the imprint of Stanley Kubrick. Great directors are inspired by, learn from, and copy other great directors. It’s what they do. Paul Schrader has always been a great writer. By imitating other great films, he has ironically, perhaps even paradoxically, finally made a film of his own that is worthy of being celebrated as their equal.

Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is a professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

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‘First Reformed’ Imagines a Stunning Dark Night of the Soul