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COLUMN: "First Reformed" is a terrifying crisis of faith


“First Reformed” is a movie written and directed by Paul Schrader.  Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

Silence and dread pervade “First Reformed,” the new film from frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader and an altogether crushing work of existential and theological terror. They seep into its crevices, fill the vacuous emptiness of its chilly atmosphere. A stirring and harrowing meditation on faith, mortality and the space mankind has carved himself in all of existence, this is one of the finest films of the year.

Ethan Hawke stars as Rev. Ernst Toller, the pastor at a quiet church in upstate New York. Its pews and décor are a pristine white, crisp and clean, but it is utterly empty, almost soulless. In that quiet vacancy, one presumes ghosts might drift about unseen. 

At the film’s outset, Toller decides to transcribe his every thought in a notebook. He will write in pen. There will be no crossing out words, no rewriting; in the eyes of God, he says, every passing thought counts. This, we soon learn, is a replacement for prayer; he is a man so broken by his worldly suffering – he’s plagued by unspecified, but grave physical ailments, and his family disintegrated after the death of his son – that he prays no longer.

From the film’s quietly moody opening scenes, it is abundantly clear that Schrader, a forty-year veteran of the filmmaking industry whose canon includes the acclaimed “Mishima” and a wealth of other writing and directing credits, is crafting from pure passion. Quietly tense and rapturously captivating, “First Reformed” captivates from the get-go with a beautifully bare-bones mise en scène that seems itself a proclamation that God, if he ever existed, has forsaken us. His camera is still, reflective almost. He shoots in a restrained color palette whose muted tones invoke quiet melancholia and outright sorrow in equal measures.

His script is tight and precise, rife with mounting tension at all the right moments and an imposing sense of lingering dread, but also content to soak up the sensations of individual moments and existential sorrows. Schrader frames intimate conversations like few others do, his camera acting as a silent observer. His brilliant cinematography and formal sensibilities recall the works of Coppola and Kubrick. 

Perhaps not since “2001” has a director felt so wonderfully content to focus his camera for minutes at a time on the spectacle of two characters talking. 

Early on, he cements the titular First Reformed church as a stand-in for the Christian faith, or at least his view of it – pristine but underscored by a sense of gradual ruin. A remnant of a bygone time, representative of past grace and present decay. Toller inhabits it in near absolute isolation. He lives there, but it is a somber and utterly joyless life. 

It’s viewed by its few visitors as a tourist stop, significant socially and historically because it was once a hiding place for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. In what amounts to a cinematic plea for change, Schrader notes with scathing honesty the former grace of Christianity, which in his eyes once stood on the right side of history but has now become woefully isolationist. 

A thematically brutal visit to a youth group at a larger, corporate-supported church — concerned more with televangelism than culture or care — called Abundant Life, asserts the all-too common flagrant disrespect by Christianity for multiculturalism and other faiths . 

But the crux of the film is not in Schrader’s cold and precise analysis of the Christian faith and its gradual decay, nor in the utter perfection of his craftsmanship, but rather in its framing as a crisis-of-faith drama. Altogether more staggering and involving than Martin Scorsese’s recent “Silence” and as utterly magnificent as Malick’s lyrical existential poem “The Tree of Life,” “First Reformed” is an essential work of its genre because of the verve and profundity with which it confronts contemporary issues.

An early sequence sees Hawke’s Toller visiting the home of a radical environmentalist offering guidance at the request of his wife, played by Amanda Seyfried. The man, a devout Christian, wants to convince his wife to abort their unborn child because he cannot fathom bringing new life into a world so devastated by mankind’s influence. 

The film’s central question shifts, then, to whether or not God can forgive us for what we’ve done to his planet.

It’s a powerful and unexpectedly magnificent question for such a film to pose, and among the already dense thicket of complex and deathly serious topics Schrader has already laid out for himself, one might imagine the film getting lost in self-seriousness. But Schrader remains dedicated to restraint, his formal stylings evident as always of the sheer magnitude of his skill as a craftsman. “First Reformed” descends down a nightmarish black hole of existential and theological ponderings, but it’s a rabbit hole Schrader navigates with deftness and precision.

Though not a horror film in any overt will to frighten or shake its audiences, “First Reformed” proves more utterly terrifying than any other 2018 release. That’s largely because of its cold vacancy and calculated emptiness, but also the singular product of a healthy dose of nihilism. For any viewer even remotely concerned with the state of the world and its steadily decaying social orders and environment, this is a work of existential terror and quiet, brooding dread. By comparison, the freneticism of “Hereditary” and the adrenaline of “A Quiet Place” feel tedious, rote.

Schrader wisely leans into horror sensibilities, but only with a steady hand and ample moderation. His film is largely anchored to the real world, but like Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent stunner “Phantom Thread,” it is a reality that feels occupied by the seen and unseen, the living and the dead. 

Predominantly, the terror that abounds in “First Reformed” is a product of its existential concerns, extending more from its chilly atmosphere and the terrifying ramifications of its ideas than from any overt will to frighten or build suspense. Though darkness fills “First Reformed,” it remains nuanced and even occasionally optimistic.  

What feels most memorable about “First Reformed” is its refusal to succumb to absolutes, and the way that it settles on a visually powerful and thematically resonant climax as deeply unnerving as it is undeniably powerful. It’s complicated and involving at every turn, and beautifully crafted to boot. This is undeniably one of the great works of its time. 

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