Dark night of the soul: ‘FIRST REFORMED’ wrestles with minister’s waning faith, growing anxiety

Preston Barta // Features Editor

Filmmaker Paul Schrader began his career in movies as a film critic in the late ’60s, writing for the Los Angeles Free Press and later for Cinema Magazine. It wasn’t too long after that when he was penning screenplays of his own (notable achievements such as Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL) and later directing movies (including AMERICAN GIGOLO and AUTO FOCUS).

Writer-director Paul Schrader on the ‘FIRST REFORMED’ red carpet at Stateside Theatre on March 13, 2018 at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Courtesy of Austin360.

“I was becoming this Travis Bickle kid [Robert De Niro’s character in TAXI DRIVER] and I was frightened by him. I knew if I didn’t write about him, he was going to eat me alive. So that’s how it started,” Schrader said on a recent phone call. “I’ve always worked that way. Art is really quite functional and can help you.”

His latest written and directed work, FIRST REFORMED, is in many ways a collection of all the elements that has made Schrader a compelling filmmaker and essayist on the state of humanity. While his mysterious (and sometimes hardcore) titles don’t always provide clear-cut resolutions, the existential questions he often poses in his films are raw and thought-provoking.

“You have to respect the mystery. There’s only so much you can analyze and try to understand. There’s a certain level of mystery in human behavior and human events. You have to respect the mystery or accept contradictory behavior and try not to explain it, but simply state, ‘This is who we are.’ Humans do strange things,” Schrader said.

In FIRST REFORMED, Ethan Hawke stars as the Rev. Toller, the leader of the titular 200-something-year-old church in upstate New York. It’s more of a tourist attraction these days than it is a house of worship, but its historical significance means a great deal to Toller. It also means a great deal to the Joel Osteen-sized megachurch, called Abundant Life, that owns it.

The Rev. Jeffers (a great dramatic turn by Cedric the Entertainer) is the head of Abundant Life. He notices a substantial change in Toller’s emotions. Jeffers tries to counsel him, telling him “even a pastor needs a pastor,” in hopes of helping him through these new feelings of alienation and floundering.

Hawke, who gives a career-best effort as Toller, paints his character with a layer of complexity that encapsulates the spiritual and emotional crisis that Schrader’s characters often face. If you look at Schrader’s past work (principally TAXI DRIVER, which FIRST REFORMED shares a lot of DNA with), you may notice a common story structure and character obstacles. He presents these individuals (often men) who are lost in the void, searching for some higher truth to solidify their existence.

“[For Bickle and Toller,] the problem is loneliness. You have the taxi cab [or prayer or a diary in FIRST REFORMED], a beautiful representation of loneliness. You build it from there and then you arrive at another problem. In both films, they have an inability to express love,” Schrader said. “As you go through life, the problems evolve and the metaphors follow.”

Toller makes a vow at the beginning of the story to mercilessly write in a diary for one year. At the end of the year, he plans to burn the diary. Schrader uses the diary as a narrative device to connect the audience to Toller.

“What happens is I start getting you to identify with his character. You live his life and hear his thoughts. You are exclusively in his POV. But then about 45-60 minutes in, the character begins to veer off and become something else,” Schrader said. “You’ve spent so much time identifying with him that you’re reluctant to let go. So now you’ve found yourself in a position where you’re identifying with someone who’s no longer worthy of your identification. It’s a magical thing if you can do that, because you’ve just cracked open the viewer’s skull. What happens next, you cannot predict.”

What happens next you absolutely cannot predict. The paths Schrader sends us down are nearly comparable to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. It’s so far from the norm that it sucks you in with its tractor beam of ambiguity. You will wrestle with its high-minded ideals just as Toller does. How you land on the other side is a remarkable journey.

FIRST REFORMED opens in limited release on Friday, June 1.
Dallas: Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano.

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