Theater of Cruelty

Faith, hope and extremism

First Reformed
Regissør: Paul Schrader
( USA)

CLIMATE / EXTREMISM / Paul Schrader has created a powerful, disturbing and socially relevant portrait of one of God's lonely men, with clear parallels to Taxi Driver.


"No matter what I do, the first sentence of my obituary will be 'the author of Taxi Driver,'" Paul Schrader said in a recent interview with the Jesuit magazine America. Schrader is best known as the screenwriter for four of Martin Scorsese's films, and especially for the aforementioned classic from 1976, but has also directed a large number of feature films himself. Among these are Hardcore (1978) American Gigolo (1980) Cat People (1982) Mishima (1985) Light Sleeper (1992) Affliction (1997) and Auto Focus (2002). And with First Reformed the now over 70 year old Schrader has made one of his best films as a director – if not the best.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that the film makes comparisons with Taxi Driver almost inevitable. But the parallels are many and obvious – although First Reformed is also quite a different beast. And, impressively, it can withstand the comparison.

Lack of forgiveness

"I'm God's lonely man," Travis Bickle said Taxi Driver. The wording fits so well with the main character Toller in First Reformed, sparkling played by Ethan Hawke. Like Bickle, he notes his disillusioned thoughts in a diary, which constitutes the film's narrative voice. Toller is a pastor at First Reformed Church in the north of New York state, a bright reformist church that keeps going thanks to tourist visits (due to the church's historic significance along the "slave route") and financial resources from a group with little sustainable environmental footprint. The former military priest is tormented – perhaps especially to himself. Not least is this because a few years back he persuaded his son to enlist as a soldier in Iraq, where he fell into a war Toller can no longer justify. With that, his marriage also hit. In addition, the pastor is plagued by some rather prominent symptoms of a serious illness – without stopping him from drinking tightly.

The question is whether God can forgive people what they do to the creation.

Toller is sought out by young and pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who wants him to have a conversation with her husband – a radical environmental activist who does not think it right to put a child into a world on the brink of climate disaster. When Mary discovers that her husband has hidden a vest with explosives, it seems clear that he intends to turn his most extreme thoughts into action.

As Toller himself descends into the same mindset, he no longer asks if he can forgive himself, but whether God can forgive people what they do to creation.

Spiritual and personal

Martin Scorsese also recently made his best film in several years Silence (2016), who was a personal heartbeat to the director. The similarities between Scorsese's historical novel adaptation of Christian missionaries in Japan in the 1600 century and Schrader's contemporary drama are not striking, but the two films have in common that both are spiritual tales of faith and doubt. There is also reason to believe that First Reformed is a very personal film for the religious Schrader, whose strict Calvinist parents forbade him to go to the cinema during childhood (he allegedly sneaked in to watch his first movie when he was in his teens).

First Reformed. Director Paul Schrader

The clearer the echoes are from Taxi Driver and its isolated and self-destructive protagonist Travis Bickle: Pastor Toller and Bickle are strongly influenced by their own war (Bickle is a Vietnam veteran) and a growing skepticism of the society in which they live, and both are gradually drawn to extremist acts. One can also see some parallel between Mary in the First Reformed and the young prostitute girl in Taxi Driver, who the two main characters are each trying to save. Some of the pictures in First Reformed - Toller filmed from above in his bed as well as pictures of the streets while driving – also acts as obvious visual nods to the 70 number classic. But the two films are also in a kind of dialectical contradiction to each other, where they go almost opposite ways from these meeting points.

One can imagine a certain relationship with Ingmar Bergmans communicants (1963), with its low-key portrayal of a priest struggling with faith as churchgoers fail.

Schrader himself has cited several of Robert Bresson's films as his sources of inspiration, including Pickpocket (1959) and A village priest's diary (1951), as well as Carl Theodor Dreyers Word from 1955. In addition, one can sense a certain relationship with Ingmar Bergmans communicants (1963), with its low-key portrayal of a priest struggling with faith as churchgoers fail.

Topical and thought provoking

Despite the older references intervene First Reformed very direct grip on their time and some of the most important issues we face – political as well as spiritual. Schrader has created an uncompromising and visionary film, shot in the classic 1,33: 1 image format, with bright, greyish and at the same time crystal clear tripod images. This expression – accompanied by frugal but effective music – underscores both the contemporary presence, the lingering desperation and a literally narrow space of action. Nevertheless, the film also contains sequences of a more surreal nature, which together with an ambivalent climax forces both reflection and discussion.

First Reformed. Director Paul Schrader

First Reformed has rightly ended up on many lists of last year's best films, and Schrader has received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the script. Nevertheless, the film has not received regular cinema distribution in this country. Admittedly, it is available in purchase and rental formats, but for the capital's residents, it is recommended to watch it in the dark of cinema when it is set up at the Cinemateket, Vega Scene and Artist's House Cinema in March.

This is a film that deserves to be seen in cinemas – and which claims the cliché of joining you long after you leave the cinema. First Reformed is a powerful and disturbing film experience, which suggestively depicts extremism as well as individual and collective destructiveness. But it is not necessarily devoid of faith, hope or love.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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