Through a Glass Starkly: Schrader Delivers a Master Study on Despair and Extremism
Priests, and their psychic struggle with obligation to the cloth, have always held a certain fascination in auteur cinema, thanks to the likes of Bresson, Bunuel, Hitchcock, et al. We can add Paul Schrader to a shortlist of greats with his contemporary tale of loneliness and woe in First Reformed, a chilly, but methodically perverse study of one man’s passage to the dark side.
Examining despair and isolation as the transportive conduits into temptation and eventual extremism, Schrader maximizes the effectiveness of Ethan Hawke as his tragic central figure to a degree no director has perhaps accomplished with the performer before, or with such bleak fervor. Unfolding with a cold, estranging precision, Schrader slips imperceptibly into emotional overdrive in its breathless final moments with a climax as poignant as it is unforgettably troubling.
Reverend Toller (Hawke) has arrived at a sort of crossroads, even though he doesn’t know it yet. An ex-military chaplain of a Dutch Reform Church about to celebrate its 250th anniversary (the oldest church in Albany County), his dwindling flock of parishioners attend his sermons in what’s colloquially called the “souvenir shop.” As an experiment, and perhaps to quell his loneliness and raging lust for liquor (partially to escape growing signs of severe internal health issues), he begins to keep a daily journal to record everything, a document intended to be destroyed by fire after a year. His trajectory suddenly changes when Mary (Amanda Seyfried) requests Toller counsel her troubled boyfriend, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a staunch environmentalist who wishes she would abort her current pregnancy due to the ragged state of the world. As Toller becomes involved with the couple, he begins to empathize with Michael’s troubling radicalism due to the increasingly dire state of the environment, which humanity’s actions have severely compromised.
While Bresson may be an influence bandied about here, First Reformed also strongly channels the starkness of Bergman. Hawke’s Toller plays like the resigned figure of Victor Sjostrom’s professor in the 1961 classic Wild Strawberries, before veering straight into the inferno territory of Harriet Andersson’s troubled character in Through a Glass Darkly (also 1961). That Schrader’s latest so strikingly resembles a disappearing tradition of difficult Euro cinema is sure to drive audiences away from a film daring to meld age-old questions on humanity’s purpose blended with the troubling depletion of our natural resources leading to eventual extinction.
Hawke is pitch-perfect as a man battling his own demons, revealed exquisitely through an extended conversation with Philip Ettinger’s troubled Michael. Amanda Seyfried is equally stellar in a subtle role as a mournful girlfriend in a relationship with recalls the simmering tension between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Rivas in Leon Morin, Priest (1961). Two other standouts include Victoria Hill (who also produces) as an enamored choir director, and as Hawke’s boss, a well-played Cedric the Entertainer (here credited as Cedric Kyles), interested in retaining the profitability and reputation of his mega church
Schrader populates the film with characters whose names imply various Biblical allusions—Toller’s dead son was named Joseph; Seyfried is Mary; and of course, the choir director Esther, a rebound liaison which eventually results in a falling out of favor. The film is filled with small moments seething with barely contained emotional rifts, such as a brief aside where Hawke schools a small but diverse coterie of children on how the church was used as a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. “Imagine how they felt,” he begins, drifting off into his own conjuring as DP Alexander Dynan (returning to with Schrader after 2016’s grungy Dog Eat Dog) lingers on Hawke’s hardened, increasingly weary gaze.
If Schrader has had to deal with an onslaught of compromised projects over the past two decades, First Reformed is not only the purest distillation of his intentions in quite some time, but also one of his most acutely reserved. And underneath every moment, every exchange, lies a darkness waiting to envelope this array of isolated souls trying to contend with the obliviousness of the sheep all around them.
Reviewed on September 12th at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival – Masters Programme. 112 Mins