There is Catholic guilt, and then there is Protestant dread. First Reformed, the new film by Paul Schrader, who was raised as a Calvinist, opens with a slow approach to a white-walled church, which looms amid headstones and naked trees to take on the aspect of a crypt – or, this being New York, the land of Melville, a beached whale. The square frame of the camera contains each shot in the manner of a walled cell.
Founded in 1767, the eponymous First Reformed parish runs on donated funds from a nearby megachurch called Abundant Life where the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) draws crowds of thousands to Sunday services each week. The Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) emerges from the First Reformed sacristy to the sight of fewer than 10 congregants on a typical Sunday. But the two churches share the colour of their carpets: a muted red-brown that resembles something between dried blood and rust.
In the evenings, Toller returns to the attached parsonage where he drinks, writes in his journal and tries to pray. Paint cracks away in great flakes from the walls and ceilings; we observe Toller reflected in mirrors as he writes, attempting to capture a reflection of his own life. He suffers from painful urination and frequent stomach aches, and spends nights in the pews of his church. “How easily they talk about prayer,” he writes, “those who have never really prayed.”
Toller is in despair. A pregnant woman in his congregation named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to meet her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, and Toller finds someone who understands his condition from within. Michael wants his wife to abort their baby because he cannot countenance the act of bringing a new life into a dying world. “Can God forgive us?” he asks Toller during their meeting at his home. Behind him, a laptop cycles through slides that chart the earth’s rising temperatures across decades; his walls are covered in images of oil spills, starving polar bears and fellow activists who have died for the sake of their cause. He asks whether these deceased could be considered martyrs.
On the matter of forgiveness for the devastation humankind has wrought across the globe, Toller responds: “Who can know the mind of God?” Portions of his responses to Michael’s anguished questions become inaudible as his self-narration picks up: “I felt like Jacob wrestling the angel.” The camera looks down at him in a low chair, encouraging us to judge him for being unable to escape his ego. But the aside is prescient, and Toller leaves the conversation with a limp.
Like the master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu – a practitioner of what Schrader has called “transcendental style in film” – Schrader uses stationary cameras to capture almost every scene, and this lends First Reformed a quiet sublimity. Characters appear in the film as flat portraits captured using direct 90-degree shots, their faces lit to suggest the mysteries of iconography. In this context, a moving camera is a portent. When Toller meets Mary at the house she shares with Michael while he is at work, the camera rolls to track the pair as Mary unexpectedly leads Toller away from the front of the house and down the driveway to the garage, where she has something to show him. Something begins to move in Toller. His actions reflect motivations that are unknown even to him.
Schrader’s film is profoundly, deliberately equivocal. It suggests multiple readings in part for the unavoidable convergence of unknowable causes. In one such reading, Toller is Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith. He lacks recourse to a shared moral language, having been brought into an “absolute relation with the absolute”. His direct connection with God is ineffable; like Abraham wielding the knife over his son, he is utterly alone.
But even in this reading there is no escaping the enclosure of the material world in this film, just as no one escapes the cell of the movie’s square frame. In a telling and beautiful shot, a milky dollop of Pepto-Bismol feathers out in a glass of whiskey, evoking a similar image from the creation sequence in Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. In place of Malick’s cosmos, though, Schrader gives us a universe in a tumbler. There is nothing outside the glass, and what is inside is about to be consumed.
The building dread reaches its zenith in the final shot, a hallucinatory image accompanied by an alienating rendition of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. In any reading of the ending, what transpires is a moment of false salvation, and the tension that has built up through the entire film remains as the credits begin to climb. The hymn is cut off; the lights come up. You stand and stretch and blink, not knowing what has been done to you, or what you are supposed to do to fix it.
Martyn Wendell Jones is an American writer living in Toronto
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