Schrader, now seventy-one, made a loud screenwriting debut back in 1976 with Taxi Driver, and went on to write three other Martin Scorsese films, including Raging Bull, while directing movies of his own, most notably American Gigolo (1980). Brought up in the midwest in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, he was homeschooled in a strictly observant family, and didn’t see his first movie until he snuck out to a theater at seventeen. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, he spoke about escaping that world, getting an MA at UCLA’s film school, and projecting himself into a cultural milieu far removed from that of his upbringing. First Reformed represents a return to his roots.
Schrader is a cinema intellectual, who in his twenties published an influential essay on film noir and a study of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer. His new film’s obvious forebear is Bresson’s 1951 masterpiece, Diary of a Country Priest, with which it shares substantial overlap: the protagonist’s lurking intestinal illness and resort to alcohol; the pastoral counsel that leads to controversy; the voiced-over diary narration, expressing a desperate personal futility; and on and on. Both films exude a somber minimalism, with everything inessential stripped away, from the protagonist’s life and from the film itself. First Reformed radiates a mesmerizing severity. There’s no music, and Alexander Dynan’s camera remains stationary, so that characters move in and out of view. The formal language of the pastor’s diaristic musings, plus the sober, still camerawork, give the film an austere and literary aspect; I was reminded of Michael Haneke’s bitter, brutal masterpiece The White Ribbon. (I’m not sure why Schrader has named his protagonist after the left-wing German-Jewish playwright who committed suicide in a New York City hotel in 1939.) Another clear influence is Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), whose priest-protagonist also counsels a young man haunted by worry about global apocalypse.
Just as important, however, are films in the director’s own oeuvre. Schrader wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, with its portrait of a Jesus steeped in human fallenness. He also scripted Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast, another showcase for a self-destructive male protagonist caught in an ever-darkening worldview. And above all, First Reformed looks back to Taxi Driver. As Reverend Toller’s despair deepens and hardens, and his intentions begin to take on a dire cast, the diaristic voiceover grows steadily bleaker, until inevitably our thoughts turn to Travis Bickle in his cab, ruminating about “the animals that come out at night,” and prophesying ominously that “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Schrader even references Taxi Driver explicitly, with a scene in which Toller pours whiskey into his cereal.
In the Fresh Air interview, Terry Gross pressed Schrader on the similarity, and the director demurred. Bickle, he said, was unaware and uneducated; his alienation and anger were “narcissistic,” while Reverend Toller’s are “existential.” And in fact, the first half of First Reformed is riveting precisely because of its steady bead on an inner battle between faith and despair. In one great scene early on, Toller counsels Michael, and the two men go back and forth on such basic issues of Christian faith as the existence of evil and the promise of an afterlife. “Hope is impossible without despair,” Toller tells Michael, and it’s hard to know whether he is waxing theological, or using a sly rhetorical device to try to flip the younger man’s attitude, or arguing desperately with himself...or all three.
The intensity of this exchange is abetted by facial close-ups that reveal the two men in protean sequences of perplexity, anguish, and doubt—and again reveal this film as Schrader’s homage to his gods of cinema. Indeed, the scene could be used to teach what Bergman meant when he praised “the correctly illuminated, directed, and acted close-up of an actor” as “the height of cinematography,” crediting it with “that incredibly strange and mysterious contact you can suddenly experience with another soul through an actor’s gaze.” (One should add Dreyer, that other subject of Schrader’s early book, and the intimacy with which he feasts upon the luminous visage of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.) And First Reformed is correctly acted, to be sure. With his faintly haggard face and pasty complexion, Ethan Hawke has a gift for portraying characters who look ill, and it boosts the unsettling nature of his performance. Schrader structures his film around close-ups in which the frame fills with Hawke’s face, registering small inflections of contending emotions—and so much pain, we can hardly look. But we can’t look away, either. Such moments lend First Reformed the feeling of capturing something fundamental about the human spirit under siege.
The last third of the film struggles with the burden of a gathering violence that may have belonged on the mean streets of Taxi Driver, but seems less organic here. Toller’s inner experience is set on an arc intended to justify extreme actions—not theologically, but dramatically—and at times a slow camera approach, combined with a throttled rumbling, creates horror-movie ominousness. Yet violence never attains the inevitability it did in Taxi Driver. Setting is a problem. Voice-over recitations from the Book of Revelation are intended to bring a pall of annihilating urgency to Toller’s movements amid the grayed-out upstate countryside, but the noirish New York City of the 1970s seemed a lot more like end days.
Yet First Reformed exerts an undeniable power. Scorsese has cited Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest as an influence on Taxi Driver, and now Schrader has closed the circle with a film that explicitly channels both of them, giving us Travis Bickle in a cleric’s collar and completing a through line of protagonists caught in toxic isolation. Perhaps it’s true that a solitude originally intended to be narcissistic has become existential and prophetic. But it’s the same predicament. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere,” Schrader had his antihero confess back then. “There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”