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Non-Review Review: First Reformed

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

First Reformed is an unholy mess.

On paper, First Reformed has some very interesting ideas. It is a film grappling very consciously with weighty themes and heavy subject matter. It is about the challenge of finding faith in a modern and cynical world, and about reconciling the mundane maintenance of spiritual belief with the euphorically elevation of pure devotion. This is a broad theme that resonates in a world that feels increasingly disconnected and diffused, in a time when people feel increasingly distant from purpose or meaning.

Indeed, the core premise invites comparisons to Taxi Driver, which remains the defining work in Schrader’s filmography. Schrader has been working as a writer for almost forty-five years, and as a director for forty years, but his body of work is still discussed in terms of the second script that he wrote. Although most audiences associate Taxi Driver with the creative partnership of Scorsese and DeNiro, it was a work that was very important to Schrader, articulating themes and ideas to which he would return time and time again.

First Reformed brings Schrader back to that, with Reverend Ernst Toller feeling very much like a spiritual sibling to Travis Bickle, a man who struggles to make sense and to find meaning in a chaotic world and who decides to impose his own order upon the universe. Schrader is very much playing with his own history and iconography here, playing out a familiar story in a new setting with a slightly different emphasis. As with a lot of artists revisiting their earlier and defining, the results are frustrating. First Reformed bends and contorts in the shadow of its predecessor, never coming into its own.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in First Reformed, particularly in the first two acts. Given that First Reformed is essentially a character study, a lot of the movie hinges on the central performance of Ethan Hawke. As Toller, Hawke is very much the heart and soul of the movie. Unsurprisingly, given its thematic preoccupations, the character of Reverend Toller is tasked with carrying a lot of the movie; there are extended scenes in Toller seems to move alone through the world, and he lays out his thoughts to the audience through the power of voice-over. Hawke’s performance is the bedrock of the movie.

Schrader is playing with big ideas in First Reformed, tackling his subject matter in a manner that walks a fine line between bitter depression and pitch-black humour. For its first two thirds, First Reformed has a decidedly wry sense of humour, as Schrader captures the absurdity of Reverend Toller’s religious experience; he manages a church that serves primarily as a tourist attraction with a nice gift shop, in service of a larger religious organisation managed in the style of a faceless corporate entity that seems to appreciate Toller in no small part because he operates well within his budget.

Schrader finds no small irony in the clean and sterile environments in which Toller operates. There are repeated references to the leaky toilet in the otherwise immaculately maintained historical building, the religious man relishing the opportunity to literally get his hands dirty. The huge empty auditorium that serves as the order’s headquarters is almost absurdly large, complete with branded t-shirts and impressive cafeteria. There is a sense that religious belief is little more than a gigantic faceless machine, with the greatest concern being the working of the church organ for a celebratory webcast.

There is something quite effective in these early sequences, as First Reformed captures the isolation and disconnect that Toller feels, trying to justify his religious faith and to find some deeper spiritual meaning to his existence. “You are always in the garden,” complains the chief executive of this religious order to Toller, who is clearly in the midst of something approaching a crisis of (or at least related to) faith. “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden.” Toller might be in the garden, but is disappointed to discover that the plants are all made of plastic.

There is something surprisingly tender and mellow in these early sequences, even as Toller finds himself confronted by those whose passion and faith – and sense of purpose – seem to eclipse his own. Toller is energised by debates with an environmentalist, so invested in his desire to save the planet that he cannot fathom bringing a child into this sinful world. He also confronts a more radical young believe who laments the idea of being instructed to “turn the other the other cheek.” Toller seems to long for an opportunity to assert his faith, to find some validation or some expression.

There are any number of small and inspired touches in how Schrader chooses to tell this story. Of particular note is the director’s use of the somewhat outdated Academy Ratio. The unconventional format serves works to underscore his protagonist’s anxieties: the close-ups reinforce the suffocation that the character feels in, hemmed in by the expectations and restrictions of his modern role; the “wide” shots, such as they are, hint at the character’s crisis of faith, the almost-as-tall-as-it-is-wide frame composed in such a way as to emphasis the empty sky above him and the solid earth beneath him.

All of this serves to create the sense that First Reformed might be seen as a middle-aged reflection on the youthful anger of Taxi Driver, a more grounded and reflective contemplation of the same existential uncertainties, suggesting a connection between the angry listlessness of the seventies and the spiritual anomie of the new millennium. These comparisons suggest themselves through any number of Schrader’s creative choices; Reverend Toller’s connection to a young pregnant parishioner (named Mary!) providing a more tempered reflection of Bickle’s relationship with Iris.

However, the problem is that First Reformed ends up caught in the gravity of that monumental film, taking a sharp turn in the final act that suggests a film not so much in response to Taxi Driver as in conversation with it; the problem being that Taxi Driver set the tone of the conversation more than forty years earlier. As a result, First Reformed pivots and bends in ways that do not seem natural, the narrative jutting off in particular directions that only really make sense in terms of its relationship to Taxi Driver rather than in the context of this particular film.

In its final half-hour, First Reformed moves away from its low-key and wry reflections towards a decidedly pulpier sensibility. These elements are carefully seeded in narrative terms, to the point that these contortions seem almost inevitable. However, the tonal shifts are too jarring and too sudden to land with the requisite emotional impact. These developments plunge what had been a somewhat modest character study into the realm of heightened pulpy psycho-drama. Schrader gets the church organ working in the final third of film, and embraces it with such gusto that he never bothers to check that it’s in key.

In its first two thirds, First Reformed suggests the mellowed wisdom of a wisened punk, the same anger and frustration filtered through a different lens. The final act of First Reformed discards that mature reflection for a desperate attempt to recapture the aggressive sensibilities of a much younger rebel. The spectacle is unconvincing, what was once edgy and provocative now feeling tired and familiar. First Reformed feels like the work of a man who carries inside him the anger that defined Taxi Driver, but the energy is gone and the film abandons what insight might have arrived in its stead.

First Reformed is not reformed enough.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

 

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