Written and directed by Paul Schrader
“First Reformed” tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller, a pastor at an old church that has been mostly forgotten. Its contributions to the community are largely ceremonial, with more visitors interested in taking a tour or browsing their gift shop rather than any real spiritual journey.
Toller finds himself tasked with counseling a young couple as he struggles to make sense of his faith, the world and his place in both.
I found myself struggling with the plot through much of the film. The pace is slow and plodding, and the use of environmental issues feels a bit heavy-handed on the surface. Toller’s heal turn also feel extremely abrupt and jarring. His interactions with Michael and Mary are brief and do not really justify Toller’s sudden shift towards activism.
Granted, his health issues and loss of his son Joseph can maybe make up the ground in this area, but it feels a little forced. Also the biblical name drops – Mary, Joesph and Michael, to name a few – seem a bit too obvious.
However, while the plot left a bit to be desired, the story and technical mastery more than carry the load.
Filmed in a remarkable 20 days, Schrader uses an unusual 4:3 aspect ratio, making the screen small and virtually claustrophobic. The camera remains largely stationary throughout the narrative, with beautifully composed shots. These restrictions not only force the audience’s focus in specific areas, it informs the characters’ situations and motivations. Toller feels the walls pushing in on him, and the audience is subtly presented with this pressure.
I understand my criticism of Schrader’s writing may seem sacrilegious. He is best known for his screenplays for much of Martin Scorsese’s finest work: “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” However, I do think the strength of the story is much more impressive than the plot’s downfalls.
I think when movies fail, it’s largely due to the fact that too much emphasis was placed on the plot. Films are not important because a character goes to a place and does a thing. Films are important because of what the timeline presented means. Films only achieve artistic excellence when the viewer is presented with larger themes beneath the surface. The stories we remember are not procedural – they are philosophical and illuminate a larger idea.
And this film has plenty of that.
For example, Toller finds himself working in a church that really only still exists for ceremony. The church no longer serves any real function other than to continue to exist. Toller also feels this weight. Divorced and reeling from the death of a child that he feels responsible for, he begins to journal as a way to better understand his faith, which seems to be slipping from his grasp.
Mary and her unborn child represent hope. She too stares tragedy in the face, but largely still sees the light. That is not to say she is completely untouched by the darkness, but her fear forces her to run from it. Toller and Michael allow this darkness to consume them.
For me, the environmental slant and big-business-as-Boogyman plotlines are red herrings. These clichés telegraph one path for the story to take, but the conflicts are much more internal and personal. Again, this is where the small screen and static camera actually allows the narrative to breath.
“First Reformed” is far from a perfect work. However, the virtues far outweigh the flaws. The technical brilliance and understated acting makes this a much watch for any true movie nerd.