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Venice + Toronto 2017: Schrader’s First Reformed

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed premieres in Competition in Venice before screening in the Masters program in Toronto, and the New Yorker’s Richard Brody finds it to be “a fierce film; Schrader, one of the crucial creators of the modern cinema (among his many achievements, he wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo), seems to have made it in a state of anger, passion, pain, mourning, and desire, held together by the conflicted religious fury—blending exaltation and torment—that runs through all of his films. Schrader is only seventy-one, and I trust that he has many years of artistic creation ahead of him. But First Reformed nonetheless has the feeling of a summation, of a teeming and roiling avowal of his longtime obsessions, from the distant pressure of family life as a child to the repellent politics currently unfolding daily.”

“In an interview in March, Paul Schrader questioned the ongoing usefulness of Slow Cinema,” notes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, and “regardless of how I feel about Schrader’s pronouncement, there’s something very cool about First Reformed, which acts as a form of film criticism and quite credibly engages with the medium it seeks to course correct. . . . At first, Schrader appears to have assimilated the method wholly: we’re in a 1.37 square frame, there’s a very slow and portentous dolly in on a church, and the first few scenes flirt with the staples of this kind of filmmaking: meticulously symmetrical framing, a paucity of dialogue, etc. But two things immediately make this different: before we get to the church where Toller (Ethan Hawke) ministers, we spend some time with him. It’s immediately clear that Schrader is revisiting and revising (and not shy about taking as a template) Diary of a Country Priest, which I’d highly recommend rewatching as prep beforehand if it’s been a while: Toller writes a diary in longhand, and Schrader goes all in with his framing, the precise same overhead tilted-down shots and angles Bresson used.”

TheWrap’s Alonso Duralde takes it from here: “One of Toller’s few parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, Compliance); Mary is pregnant, but Michael, a committed environmental activist, thinks it’s immoral to bring a child into this decaying world. Spending time with Michael convinces Toller that God objects to man’s destruction of the world, which puts him in an awkward position with Barq (Michael Gaston, The Leftovers), a wealthy local industrialist—and major contributor to both churches—who happens also to be a world-class polluter. But First Reformed is less about that plot than it is character, and Schrader and Hawke have collaborated on a searing portrait.”

“Schrader’s new drama blows into town like Jesus at the temple,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “It’s here to call out the hypocrites, railing at the way in which Christianity is deployed as a convenient fig leaf by the resurgent American right, or perhaps as a bizarre form of carbon offsetting whereby a historic church makes amends for a toxic river. First Reformed is a deeply felt, deeply thought picture; impressive in its seriousness and often gripping in the way it frames itself as a debate and a sermon. It is also, crucially, a flawed portrait of a flawed man, at war with its baser instincts and in danger of backsliding. And when Schrader’s hero begins to overheat, his film can’t help but follow suit.”

“For a while,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “the drama echoes Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light—a priest in a remote parish haunted by his inability to save souls. Schrader works in a stately, dark-toned style that’s far more compelling than the frenetic genre hash of his last two films, Dying of the Light (2014) and Dog Eat Dog (2016). (The luscious, chocolate-bar cinematography is by Alexander Dynan.) Yet First Reformed remains, at heart, a programmatic highbrow exploitation film. I mean that as a compliment.”

“It's his most effective work as a director since Auto Focus fifteen years ago, but it's a direly bleak affair,” finds the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “The movie's concerns are obvious, not subtle, and while intellectual energy abounds, laying in subtext, building underlying tension physical and creating visual dynamism are not Schrader's strong suits.”

“Similar to Larry Fessenden’s brand of ecological horror films (The Last Winter,Wendigo), the more twisted elements of Schrader’s storytelling are grounded in a profound socially conscious intent,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “That’s especially true in the gripping finale, a suspenseful moment in which Toller confronts his contradictory impulses with a bloody, unexpected act that brings the full scope of the movie’s ambition into focus.”

Meantime, Fresh Air has posted Terry Gross’s 1988 interview with Schrader (19’46”).

Updates, 8/31: “Seyfried is sweetly understated as an expectant mother who forms a close bond with Toller through their shared grief,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson. “Victoria Hill breaks the heart as a choir teacher with unrequited feelings for Toller. And stand-up comic Cedric Kyles (better known as Cedric The Entertainer) gives a layered turn as a megachurch pastor who’s as concerned with church finances as he is with scripture. But First Reformed belongs to Hawke’s impassioned, agonized portrayal. Schrader tests his audience’s empathy by making Toller’s actions increasingly outrageous, but his star provides an emotional through-line for us to hold onto.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 4/5) and Upcoming editor Filippo L’Astorina.

Updates, 9/2:First Reformed is “Schrader’s best work in goodness-knows-how-long,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “Schrader and his cast commit to the project with sharpened and unblinking seriousness, even when the going gets mesmerically weird, with violence, visions, levitations and Neil Young protest songs chanted somberly by toxic swamps.”

“Schrader’s extremely strict Calvinist Christian Reformed Church upbringing has often manifested in the rejection of [its] values,” writes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “But the complex relationship with faith would also produce a deep admiration for a minimalistic, austere style of filmmaking that awakens a spiritual state of grace. Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer may have invented the form, but Schrader literally wrote the book on the transcendental style in film (1988’s Transcendental Style in Film), extolling the virtues of divinity realized though stasis and primacy. Which makes the 71-year-old’s latest effort, First Reformed, almost a statement of intent: not only is it a cinematic return to form, but a career-defining homecoming.”

From the University of California Press: “Releasing in May 2018, Schrader’s seminal text Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer will be reissued with a substantial new introduction representing Schrader’s experiences and ideas as a filmmaker that have evolved over time, giving the original work both new clarity and a contemporary lens.”

Update, 9/6:Pamela Jahn for Cinema Scope: “Apart from one misjudged moment when the film, for the length of a song, steps out of the misery on display to make way for a glimpse of temporary freedom and relief, the tone holds; yet this lapse is only a minor flaw, easily forgiven in light of this deeply intriguing tale that otherwise knows and shows no mercy.”

Updates, 9/16: “For this remarkably focused picture, Schrader pulls hard from not just his own cinema and its spiritual yearning that twists into violence and (self-)abuse, but also from Bergman’s Winter Light (1962) and his beloved Carl Th. Dreyer,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “Above all, the film liberally adapts Robert Bresson, specifically the mixture of religious abnegation and egotism of Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and the specter of malaise for a new generation from The Devil, Probably (1977), with which First Reformed shares a fixation on the ecological destruction of the earth as a locus of spiritual doubt. It even features a direct quotation of the joyful bike riding sequence from Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), but as with all of these sources of inspiration, Schrader remarkably makes them his own, sublimating them into a beautifully stripped-down mise en scène that seems to emanate from the intelligence and pain of Hawke’s Reverend Toller.”

“Everything Paul Schrader has done throughout his career has led him to First Reformed, potentially the finest entry in what my friend and former Slant contributor Jeremiah Kipp refers to as the writer-director's ‘men in rooms’ films,” writes Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door. “These include 1980's American Gigolo, 1992's Light Sleeper, and 2007's The Walker, all woozy character studies of not-quite-alpha males drifting through impeccably maintained, utterly empty lives that are summarily upended. The spaces these men inhabit seem an extension of their preplanned existences. . . . In First Reformed, Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu form a kind of holy trinity. . . . Like many of his fellow movie brats (Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg) at their best, Schrader references his forbears as way of distilling and crystallizing his own ideas and obsessions. What results here is something entirely, thrillingly new, and very much of the now.”

Dispatching back to the Los Angeles Times,Justin Chang notes that the film “gives rise to an angry, confrontational question: Why have so many Christians rejected the science of climate change, effectively abdicated their God-given responsibility to look after the Earth? Speaking as a believer who has often pondered that and other dispiriting questions about why evangelical Christianity has been so readily co-opted by conservative politics, I’ll confess that the heaviness of Schrader’s moral inquiry and the earnestness of his provocations were right up my alley. And it’s nothing short of fascinating to watch the director reconcile the queasy momentum of a thriller with the hushed, transcendental austerity of the masters he’s emulating.”

“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,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “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.”

“There is something humorous and knowing in the casting of Hawke as a self-centered priest, the role beautifully echoing the obnoxious narcissist he played in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy,” writes Elena Lazic at Little White Lies. “Walking the thin line between earnestness and ridicule cannot be easy, yet Hawke is mesmerizing in a part that gives him a real opportunity to display his understated and underrated talent as an actor. Watching him play a character that is simultaneously deeply moving and grotesquely stupid, self-absorbed to the point of being blind and yet deeply sympathetic, is both thrilling and exciting.”

“Unique in contemporary cinema, it’s a film that takes religion and scripture seriously, and because it does, it must go to the very dark place it eventually goes,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey, “and the place you’d expect from the director of Affliction and Mishima, and the writer of Taxi Driver.

“This is a film of fascinating conversations, anchored by Hawke’s completely genuine performance,” adds Brian Tallerico at

Interviews with Schrader: Brent Lang (Variety) and Nancy Tartaglione (Deadline). And Variety’s Dave McNary reports that A24 has picked up U.S. rights.

Update, 9/17: “From the very first shot—an adagio dolly-in on a severely framed chapel—we’re in familiar territory for the veteran filmmaker, yet in the presence of a fierce new lucidity,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “Cracked with awe and terror, this is a cry from a director who never forgot that cinema, to quote one of Hawke’s musings, is ‘a form of prayer.’”

Update, 9/18: “Made with a kind of formal rigor that one would’ve assumed was long past Schrader after the ‘post-cinema’ experimentations of The Canyons and Dog Eat Dog,First Reformed is first and foremost most admirable for its sustained mood,” writes Ethan Vestby at the Film Stage. “Regardless of the Minister Travis Bickle at its center, the perspective that comes to define First Reformed is still not necessarily one of burn-it-all-down rage. In fact, it seems a film designed for the purpose of building to the image of a redemptive, transcendental embrace of two bodies. Perhaps it’s the best of both worlds, meticulously constructed yet genuinely thinking and posing questions along the way.”

Update, 9/27:Leonard Goi at Kinoscope: “‘Will God ever forgive us for what we did to His creation?’ the priest asks Edward Balq, a local conservative zealot and parishioner running a corrupt oil company, who will oversee the church’s 250th reconsecration. ‘It’s a complicated subject,’ Balq quickly dismisses him. Schrader’s feature could be read as an attempt to debunk that snappy reply.”

Update, 10/22: “‘A lot of term papers will be written about this film,’ joked Paul Schrader at the NYFF screening of First Reformed, a surprise addition to the festival’s line-up.” Devika Girish for Vague Visages: “The multi-hyphenate filmmaker’s latest seems to anticipate dissection: its formal austerity belies a haphazard, literary-minded indulgence. Schrader pays homage to his entire pantheon of influences, from Robert Bresson through Ingmar Bergman to Andrei Tarkovsky, riffs on both high-art slow cinema and grindhouse sensationalism, and combines echt-Schrader themes of faith and temptation with ruminations on eco-terrorism and religious corporatization. It’s an ambitious sweep of ideas that Schrader doesn’t as much synthesize as bring into (albeit thrilling) proximity with one another.”

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