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.