Thursday 26 July 2018

God's lonely man: "First Reformed"

You can never quite write Paul Schrader off. Ever since this most doggedly combative of creators came to prominence with his screenplay for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in 1976, his up-down trajectory has kept generating projects that have the compelling desperation of a last shot, one final throw of the dice, some fiery rage against the extent to which the moviemaking odds have appeared to be stacked against him. After the intentionally/hopelessly/transcendentally trashy excesses of 2013's The Canyons and 2016's Dog Eat Dog - you may delete according to personal taste - First Reformed marks a return to first principles, namely the cinema of Robert Bresson that Schrader once wrote at length about: it features a diary, a country priest, a palette so muted it may as well be monochrome, and a general air of austerity that starts with (but is far from limited to) its square, no-frills, pared-down frame.

There has always been a seriousness about Schrader that the American cinema needs, desires and thus - even when leaning towards its most fantastical and Marvel-lous - cannot entirely purge; it is precisely this lived-in sincerity, this willingness to wrestle unironically with our darker nature and the nature of the world beyond us, that has made him a filmmaker to turn to at times of spiritual crisis. (We may need him more than ever.) We are reminded of this standing early on in the new film via a simple yet weirdly profound dolly shot that brings us to the front steps of the titular church, sited in a wintry Albany, New York. Schrader approaches this church, and the faith it stands for, as only Schrader can: straight-on, headfirst, yet with evident deep respect for the mysteries it holds and those that surround it.

The church has provided sanctuary for the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) since the death of his son led to the dissolution of his marriage some years before. We sense, however, that such divine protection may well be coming to an end. For one thing, First Reformed has been comprehensively outstripped by Abundant Life, the happy-clappy Christian superchurch down the road; for another, Ernst Toller has started coughing and pissing blood. He's dying. (But then again: aren't we all?) As his faith is challenged from within, so it's also challenged from without. One of the last few parishioners Toller can claim, a pregnant woman who just so happens to be called Mary (Amanda Seyfried), enlists the priest to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who retreated into a depressive funk upon learning the couple were expecting their first child.

The question the activist raises, and obliges the now-childless Toller to consider, is a never-more-timely one: how can anyone bring new life into a world we seem to be doing our level best to destroy? The priest's initial response, which seems a little feeble and by-the-book (by-The-Book?), is that we owe it to ourselves to hold despair and hope in equal weight. Yet over a series of interactions with the pair, this dogma will be properly tested, a burden taken on. It proves heavier than first thought: as much as Schrader declares himself in thrall to Bressonian minimalism, he's also unafraid to make a baroque paraphrase of that old Hitchcock dictum, reckoning that a suicide vest introduced in a film's first act must eventually recur come the conclusion. There is a pressure cooker under the cassock, then, and we spend almost the entirety of First Reformed's second half waiting for it to explode.

There are, in fact, pronounced differences between Bresson's technique and Schrader's, which seems informed by his experiences of working on the fringes of the commercial cinema. Schrader uses the Academy-like ratio not as a necessity but an effect, a considered choice that positions the camera a few inches closer to his characters and thereby appears to add pounds to the weight on their shoulders (as Hitchcock often did). Through the anguished figure of Ernst Toller, Schrader has realised he can make disparate real-world concerns (accelerated climate change, the rise of extremism, a general loss of faith) palpably physical and install them, as a knot of tension, in the guts of protagonist and viewer alike; we may not be the ones pissing blood, but we sure as hell come away knowing what it might feel like.

Salty old dog that he is, Schrader tosses in one nicely filthy joke about the church organ, but evidently First Reformed was never conceived as light relief, and in places it can come off as a little self-conscious about its handwringing - unlike, say, Bruno Dumont's jawdroppingly matter-of-fact Hadewijch, another drama of contemporary radicalisation, but one that confined itself to standard-issue social realism. Schrader the movie buff can't resist the flourish of having Toller add gloopy pink Pepto-Bismol to his slug of whisky, a close-up that was a quote from Godard back when Scorsese quoted it in Taxi Driver; a late shot of the priest steeling himself for action in a full-length mirror returns us, with a muted horn-honk, to the world of Travis Bickle.

Yet by putting a thoughtful, competent, capable priest rather than an out-and-out sociopath centre frame, First Reformed addresses one of the issues this viewer has always had with the Scorsese film: late Schrader is interested in other people - and the impact we have on one another's lives - in a way I don't believe Taxi Driver, the handiwork of angry, self-absorbed young men, ever was. That intense self-scrutiny, meanwhile, aligns the film very squarely with its agonised protagonist: like Toller, it's aiming for purity of form and spirit, but it can't avoid being corrupted by the knowledge that follows from being in this world for any length of time. You may not thrill to this torturousness, but it is absolutely integral, and defiantly not a pose. 

The exacting approach places a lot on the shoulders of a never-better Hawke, an actor whose career has been its own Boyhood, carrying him from handsome young cynic to lined, haunted soul. Here, he's mastered a concerned frown of a kind you might well want your pastor to wear, but it's one that turns gauntly sinister by night when lit from beneath by the laptop screen on which Ernst Toller schools himself as to those forces banking on a 21st century Apocalypse. The seriousness embedded in this performance carries the film, and those of us of a mind to follow it, to often unexpected places: first into a sublimated sex scene that yields a miracle of sorts (surely more Dreyer than Ozu in its levitation imagery), then to a finale that really does seem to embrace hope and despair simultaneously, pushing the priest's worldview to the limit.

At the public screening I attended, one audience member could be heard to yelp "you bastard" in the silence that separated final image from first credits, and it was unclear whether the epithet was aimed at Toller, Schrader or God himself. The film's success at the specialty box-office this long, jittery, infernally hot summer serves as its own proof of First Reformed's ability to touch an audience's nerves, and it seems to have relieved Schrader of some of his own doubts and anxieties, if the recent photo showing him celebrating his 72nd birthday at a Taylor Swift concert is anything to go by. (He has learnt a lesson unheeded by the out-of-touch goons of Dog Eat Dog, who had no idea who Ms. Swift was.) He was in a happier place there, for which even the non-believers among us might offer a small prayer of thanks. But try shaking First Reformed off.

First Reformed is now screening in selected cinemas.

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