I was a Paul Schrader devotee for decades, but about ten years ago he went off the rails. Dominion (that Exorcist prequel), The Walker (Woody Harrelson, no energy), Adam Resurrected, The Canyons (Lindsay Lohan!), The Dying of the Light and especially Dog Eat Dog…what happened, brah?
But now he’s back with First Reformed, a spare, Bresson-like, thoroughly gripping piece about despair, environmental ruin, moral absolutism and sexual-emotional redemption that’s completely rational and meditative and yet half crazy. But a good kind.
On top of which it’s been shot in a 1.66 aspect ratio, which itself is cause for modest celebration.
I watched it late last night on my 15″ Macbook Pro, and I felt truly surprised and taken aback the whole way through. Well, almost the whole way as the ending doesn’t quite work. But I can’t over-emphasize how amazing it feels to watch a fully felt, disciplined, well–ordered film by a brilliant guy who had seemingly lost his way or gone into eclipse, only to be startled when he leaps out from behind the curtain and says “Hah…I never left!”
But you did leave, Paul. You really did. I was driven crazy by Dog Eat Dog, but now you’re Lazarus.
First Reformed is so Schraderian, so moralistic in almost a Travis Bickle kind of way, so tortured and yet fully engrossing. Everyone has been calling it Taxi Driver meets Diary of a Country Priest with a little Hardcore and Rolling Thunder thrown in.
Set in upstate New York, it’s Reverent Toller (Ethan Hawke), an ex-military chaplain turned small-town minister, who gradually succumbs to the idea — don’t laugh or recoil — of moral absolutism by way of becoming a suicide bomber.
The cause is environmental ruin, and for the agnostics or ignoramuses in the audience Schrader makes the case (as if anyone needed convincing) that what’s happening to the planet right now is a great Biblical sin, and that we can’t just sit on the sidelines and say to ourselves, “Well, maybe the seas won’t rise as fast as scientists are predicting.”
I’m not going to summarize the plot minus the final beat, like all reviewers do. I hate doing that plus I have to attend the Telluride brunch. Better to just see First Reformed and let it happen.
Here’s what I wrote this morning to a friend: “Schrader’s best since Affliction. Or maybe even since Hardcore, which opened 38 years ago.
“It’s an unmistakable echo of Taxi Driver in a way — pondering an act of moral absolutism that will ‘wipe away all of the filth off the streets’ or words to that effect.
“I was riveted all through it. You can see where it’s going early on, and it holds you in its grip. That first-act conversation with that despairing environmental activist, the bearded husband of Amanda Seyfried, is really great.
“I didn’t expect a ‘happy’ ending, one that delivers sex and redemption and a kind of Seyfried cleansing, but that’s what it does. I don’t think it works, but the sexual levitation dreamscape scene does work.
“I thought the Schrader who made this, the Schrader who made Hardcore and American Gigolo and Blue Collar, had died and left the earth. But he’s still here and just as focused and well-honed and certain of purpose.
“So lean, spare, spartan. So sure of itself, so planted. The camera never moving. I think the aspect ratio is 1.66.
“Ethan Hawke…wow. Right on it, the right mood and tone. I believed every word, every expression. And the natural, unforced way that Seyfried occupies her character and task, and Cedric the Entertainer, who was so great in the Coen brothers Uncommon Cruelty or whatever it was called, and Michael Gaston ‘s right-wing industrialist who doesn’t want politics to be part of the 250th anniversary celebration of Hawke’s First Reformed church.”