By Alex Gehrlein
This movie was seemingly tailor made for me. One of my favorite screenwriters, working with one of the most brilliant modern actors, remaking and remixing two of my favorite films of all time, and wrestling with themes and questions that have always rung close to my heart. This is the best movie I’ve reviewed for the Eye. This is the best movie of 2018. I am kicking myself for not seeing it in the theater.
First Reformed follow Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a protestant minister of the titular church, who struggles with his faith amidst a sudden wave of doubt onset by tragic events in his parish and leading up to the celebration of the church’s 250th anniversary. It’s such a complex layered film that to put it in the shortest possible way, I’d say “It’s like Taxi Driver with a priest… but at the same time not that at all.” It tackles the most pressing issues of our times in an intelligent, provocative way. I hesitate to simply say “provocative,” but have to concede that it provokes much more than just thoughts. This movie wields the power to make you howl with anger and wallow with grief, hold back tears and watch in wide eyed horror. Paul Schrader is a master provocateur, and uses any element of his films to its maximum emotional punch.
Schrader is probably best known for Taxi Driver, one of my favorite films of all time. His strict Calvinist upbringing and roots in American counterculture have given him and his scripts a voice shared by no other contemporary filmmakers. In this film, he draws from so many other movies it’s dizzying. To put it concisely, he seems to be lifting mostly from the films of Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and his own past work. Specific plot elements are directly lifted from Bergman’s masterpiece Winter Light, others (maybe even unconsciously) from Taxi Driver, but it never feels like a rehashing or retread, rather a reexamination. I’m reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s immortal quote on using elements from other films: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” One of the highest compliments I can give is that the film puts up a good fight against its inspiration, even besting some of it.
Schrader has a unique understanding of America’s relationship with religion. Though controversial, I’d argue his collaboration with Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ, is one of the best films ever made on the subject (beating out First Reformed by the slightest margin possible). An informed reading of this film would require at least a base knowledge of everything from ecoterrorism and Laudato Si to American and Swedish films of the sixties and seventies. Obviously, not everyone knows everything about all of this, and I can’t claim to understand half of the more challenging material that Schrader has put into this film. Repeated viewings might hold some fruit, but some of the decisions made here are so abstract I’d only think Paul Schrader could understand them.
This film has been criminally held back from nominations in Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography at the Oscars. Schrader has finally been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and deserves it not just based on his long due recognition from the Academy, but on the strength of this script. Not one moment is wasted. Not one shot is out of place. This is a masterpiece. Plain and simple.