Edwin Arnaudin: Believe it or not, First Reformed is the first Paul Schrader film I’ve seen. My experience with his work is limited to his four excellent screenplays directed by Martin Scorsese — Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead — but his riveting tale of troubled upstate New York priest Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) makes me want to delve into his prior directorial efforts. Were you similarly inspired?
Bruce Steele: I’ll answer your question momentarily, but … you haven’t seen American Gigolo? We must rectify that. I saw many Schrader movies in the 1980s and early 1990s and remember fondly large parts of Hardcore, Cat People, Mishima, The Comfort of Strangers and Light Sleeper. But we lost touch, Paul and I, about 20 years ago. As you likely know, religion is Schrader’s favorite subject — perhaps more broadly, “transgression” — and First Reformed is indeed the most Schrader-esque of Schrader films. My problem with Schrader’s obsession with faith is that I never feel like he has anything coherent to say about it. I’m guessing you found this movie’s message more clear than I did.
Edwin: I did. I typically respond well to stories about individual interpretations of faith that often run counter to the norm and/or that person’s community. Toller’s tragic past, involving a son killed in the most recent Iraq war and the subsequent end of his marriage, and his current health woes while serving a flock of barely five people in the titular tourist attraction church makes for an intriguing character study. The complications that then stem from young pregnant congregant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeking Toller’s help with her activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, Indignation) and his desire for her to have an abortion push the priest’s despair to its breaking point. So far, so good?
Bruce: And things get strange from there, to sum up. My problem with this as a “crisis of faith” movie is that I never believed Toller had much faith to begin with. As a former military officer, it seemed to me he simply fled from one regimented life to another. But he didn’t seem motivated, in the present or the past, by deep faith, so his doubts don’t seem all that dramatic. I also thought he was a dreadful pastor in almost every instance, including his counseling of Michael, which also undermined my sympathy for him.
Edwin: I think his lack of ministerial skills make him even more interesting. He’s not suited to the calling in the traditional sense, but as a means of grueling personal improvement and making the occasional positive impact on others, the role seems well-suited. There’s even a bit of dialogue by congregant Esther (Australian actress Victoria Hill) that to me suggested Toller’s boss Rev. Jeffers (Cedric "the Entertainer” Kyles) appointed him to the post primarily for therapeutic ends, at least initially.
Bruce: That may be. I did like the metaphoric conceit of the lonely old upstate New York church, derisively called the “souvenir shop.” It’s the shell of a longstanding faith the community has abandoned, largely shifting to the trendy Abundant Life fellowship, Jeffers' slick megachurch that also runs First Reformed. But that’s just one more idea that Schrader can’t seem to do much with.
Edwin: There’s certainly room for more commentary on the vast — and somewhat darkly comedic — differences between the two churches, but Schrader mainly conveys the dichotomy in visual terms. That choice suits the film’s overall clean, sparse style and intimate focus on Toller’s conversations with typically one or two other people.
Bruce: The visual style is consistent — with one exception that we’ll get to — and the tone of the writing is as well. But I found both rather flat and unengaging. Why the narrow, old-fashioned aspect ratio, like a pre-1950s movie? It’s pretentious and distracting and ultimately pointless.
Edwin: I think the squeeze of the 1.37:1 “Academy Ratio” is fitting and further augments the personal, borderline claustrophobic nature of a film with few speaking roles and practically no musical score beyond some eerie melodic sound effects here and there.
Bruce: And why are everyone’s emotions so muted? When Toller gets loudly angry at Esther, with whom he has a fraught history, it momentarily roused me from my stupor. But then that plot line was largely dropped, and the movie went back to its gray existence.
Edwin: I was fine with the vagueness of their past, but If there’s anything somewhat underdeveloped, its Toller’s embrace of Michael’s environmental causes and distrust of local energy tycoon Edward Balq (Michael Gaston, Bridge of Spies), who’s inexplicably kept First Reformed from being bulldozed and is footing the bill for the reconsecration to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Still, considering Toller’s history and present demons, I came around to it as well.
Bruce: I’ll grant that Toller is desperate for something to which to commit himself, and ministering isn’t working for him, so I can see his halting embrace of ecological activism. His embrace of a journal — Schrader’s device to allow the crutch of a lot of voiceover, which gradually fades and ends before the movie does — is less credible, especially since the journaling never intersects with the plot.
Edwin: Well, it’s not like Toller is going to share these insights with anyone else. It’s a miracle that he opens up to Michael about his son’s death, but he needs that “in” for the father-to-be to trust him. So, I found the diary entries a welcome glimpse at his thoughts and, perhaps more telling, his self-delusions.
Bruce: The narration gives us glimpses of Toller’s muddled thinking, but it has none of the snap and crackle of Travis Bickle’s creepy voice, which drives much of Taxi Driver. That screenplay is still Schrader’s one masterpiece, and he cribs from it shamelessly for this movie.
Edwin: Does he? Granted, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it — a library copy sits on my coffee table as we type, awaiting a revisit this weekend — but, I kept looking for its influence and only slightly saw it in the final act.
Bruce: Let’s see: A loner who keeps a diary has a job that leads strangers to confess dark secrets to him, but he isn’t very good at reading those other people. Then he becomes obsessed with a public figure and emotionally attached to a younger woman. And that’s just the bits that aren’t spoilers. Schrader has said he didn’t notice the parallels, and I believe him, but the comparison remains apt as a window to the auteur’s own unresolved hang-ups.
Edwin: “Write what you know,” I suppose. As for the previously mentioned deviation from First Reformed’s core style, are you referring to the “Magical Mystery Tour” sequence?
Bruce: I am. It immediately went right up there on my list of eye-rolling, give-me-a-break fantasy sequences along with the creation of the world from The Tree of Life and the final shot of Breaking the Waves. I know you’re a Tree of Life fan, so maybe you liked this auteur overreach as well?
Edwin: Bingo, though it’s nowhere near as imaginative and emotional as Malick’s work. (Love those dinosaurs!) Schrader's art school project made me cringe at first, but I went with it and found its cumulative effect moving, if a tad heavy-handed.
Bruce: Well, you’re more open to these flights of fancy than I am. More broadly, I think audience reaction to First Reformed is largely determined by where it falls in each viewer’s experience with faith. I don’t include you in this — should I? — but I’ve seen some ecstatic reviews clearly motivated chiefly by the “that’s my story!” response.
Edwin: I can only personally related to being ostracized by a congregation for not conforming to its standards and, to paraphrase John Prine's “Spanish Pipedream,” the sense of trying to find Jesus on one's own, whatever that interpretation may be.
Bruce: For those of us without relevant personal passions, I would argue that the movie doesn’t do the job to convince us to care about Toller’s lackadaisical melancholy and weak rebellion. And as much as I generally like Hawke, I include him in this. I found his performance robotic and subdued, not at all what was called for to make the movie work.
Edwin: I’m likewise very pro-Hawke and don’t consider this to be one of his greatest turns, but I think his quiet acting is precisely what First Reformed needs. Consistent with his costars’ reserved approach, my take is it’s part of Schrader critiquing modern churchgoers’ and clergy’s somnambulist ways, which makes Toller’s plans to wake them up all the more potent. I know you responded to his rare moments of volume, but were you craving something more along the lines of the Catholic equivalent of Robert Duvall in The Apostle or Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood?
Bruce: Now there you’ve hit upon a couple preachers who really convinced me of their faith, perhaps to the point of madness. I can see your point about Toller’s lethargy being a symbol for the larger church, but it’s hard to make lethargy dramatic. For all Schrader’s attempts at mannered writing and filmmaking, I’m afraid I found First Reformed just as dull and aimless as its main character. It demonstrates Schrader’s intelligence and ambition, but it never won me over. I’ll be generous and give it a C.
Edwin: Nearly from the start, Toller feels like a time bomb, destined to explode due to some combination of his poor health, other poor decisions and outside forces. I don’t see his woes as a crisis of religious faith, but of faith in himself and his fellow man, and found his quiet — though, considering Schrader’s professed crush on Robert Bresson, not nearly as quiet as I’d feared — handling of his demons to be pretty darn enthralling. It earns a B-plus from me.
Grade: B-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre