In his 1972 critical text, Transcendental Style In Film, Paul Schrader wrote:
"Although transcendental style, like all transcendental art, strives toward the ineffable and invisible – trying to bring us as close to the ineffable and invisible as words and images can take us – it is neither ineffable nor invisible itself. Transcendental style is first and foremost a style; it uses specific film techniques for specific purposes. Although, in the end, one can only postulate how transcendental style "works" on a viewer, before that time, he can carefully analyze and define the means which bring him to that end."
Schrader has since expanded on the theory and set of filmmakers (which was initially a trio) whose works contain this unique signature: Yaujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Roberto Rosselini, and (strangely enough) Budd Boetticher. Pictures such as Tokyo Story, Pickpocket, Day of Wrath, Journey To Italy, and Comanche Station contained aesthetic and thematic flourishes that Schrader compared, contrasted and wove together to form his thesis regarding a new breed of spiritual cinema. Ozu's static, boxy frame and familial units; Bresson's lonely protagonists and their existential suffering; Dreyer's exploration of the supernatural existing in a factual world; Rosselini's striving toward cold stasis; Boetticher's single-minded heroes. Schrader was a student of cinema before he began telling his own tales; his fiction often self-described as a desperate cry for help, after abandoning his mentor (legendary film critic Pauline Kael) and wife of several years in the mid-'70s
Taxi Driver was the end result of this period of destitute reality, a work Schrader has labeled both "autobiographical" and his first "substantial work of fiction" (despite having penned Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza, Brian De Palma's Obsession, and an early draft of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Travis Bickle – a Vietnam Vet destined for destruction ("as the earth moves toward the sun, [he] moves toward violence") – was the invention of an artist on the brink of madness. It was a screenplay filled with volatile rage; a suicide note formatted for the screen. Thankfully, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro transformed this poetic howl into one of the greatest motion pictures to emerge from the New Hollywood era, announcing a distinct voice in American screenwriting.
Fast forward forty-two years, and Schrader – an individual who wasn't even allowed to see a film until he was eighteen, due to his strict Calvinist upbringing – has twenty-three directorial credits to his name, along with penning the bulk of Scorsese’s masterpieces (Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ amongst them). His movies often focus on tragic loners – such as Richard Gere's pretty male prostitute in American Gigolo, or Willem Dafoe's morose coke dealer in Light Sleeper – caught up in illicit lifestyles that place them on society’s margins. Schrader developed his own stylistic tics outside of working with “Marty” (as he affectionately refers to his frequent collaborator), while still zeroing in on the usage of music (even centering whole films, such as Light of Day, on pop tunes) and cold, Spartan environments. He became an auteur, a visionary whose point of view is singular.
First Reformed is the amalgamation of Schrader's original non-fiction and fictional texts, unifying his early stylistic theories with yet another portrait of a tormented, solitary soul in Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke). Alone in the titular 250-year old Upstate New York church, Toller has not so much lost his faith in God as he has in his ability to reach out to a younger generation prone to desperate extremism. Like the troubled anti-heroes of Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper, Toller keeps a hand-written journal of his daily thoughts and actions, relayed to us in often monotone voiceover as the Man of God wrestles with his own vanishing place on a planet being eroded by climate change. First Reformed is a painting of alienation that captures the distinct aura of dread that hangs over our current society, unmistakably human while still seeming otherworldly, thanks to Schrader's static set ups and limited camera movements. The film may also be the writer/director’s ultimate masterpiece, acting simultaneously as a culmination and refutation of his oeuvre, finding hope in a time that is ostensibly hopeless.
As with many of his movies, Schrader's beacon of light arrives in the form of a woman. Only instead of Jodie Foster’s preteen streetwalker, in First Reformed it's Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant Christian who fears that her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) has experienced a death of optimism similar to Toller's. The married couple has been quarreling since discovering Mary was with child. Michael cannot imagine bringing a son or daughter into a world that's due to die, thanks to the relentless pollution of its inhabitants and their soulless corporations. Toller tries to comfort the boy, but to no avail; finding him dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound in the park. Afterwards, Toller quickly slips into his own anguished spiral, all while becoming fixated on Michael's cause. Though they continue to visit one another, Mary's mere presence may not be enough to save the Reverend from the abyss, his newfound moral righteousness just as much a burden as his loss of religious purpose.
Like the recessive nature of Schrader's stylistic choices, Hawke's performance is equally (if not more) restrained. Inhabiting cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s 1.37:1 frame as if it were a prison cell, Hawke internalizes almost every emotion his gravelly, detached voice relays. It's a raw, naked turn from a performer often known for playing congenial, artsy "guy next door" types (see: almost all of his collaborations with another American great, Richard Linklater), allowing his director to capture the actor’s trembling, shifty facial expressions, often in medium close-up. Hawke has always been something of a spiritual performer – exploring his characters' desires with plainspoken poise – but here he's a man hanging by his fingernails over a mournful chasm, counting his numerous failures (a lost son, a failed marriage) as cancer and booze begin to eat away at his insides. His ability to convey Schrader's trademark "virus of despondency" is a remarkable achievement that rivals De Niro's initial personification of the disease.
There are other ponderous threads woven into the fabric of this ethereal tableau; notions of activism's futility in the face of conglomerates' might (especially when the power structures wrap their nefarious tentacles around temples of worship, such as the Mega Church that oversees Toller's district). Since his directorial debut – the highly underrated auto plant race war picture Blue Collar – Schrader has been equally fascinated by systematic machines working to crush the individual and divide those who operate as their cogs. By the time we reach the elusive movie's tense, terrifying climax – where Toller is forced to make a choice between engaging in savage violence (a la Bickle) or try and discover a newfound love for his fellow man – the walls Schrader’s created with his incredibly precise framing are closing in on the good Reverend, threatening to squeeze every last ounce of luminosity his core may contain. It's a miracle of formalist function and textual craftsmanship - a marriage that this great artist has seemingly been working toward his entire career.
However, the most daring moments may be the movie's last, which possess a wisdom and grace well beyond those '72 and '76 announcements of intent. First Reformed is a work that makes us question whether it is better to pick up a gun and fight in the name of a noble cause, or perhaps lay down our arms and take whatever moments of life we have left to comfort those who surround us. The grandeur of extinguishing one's enemies pales in comparison to the gentle touch of those who offer several forms of worship in the face of chaotic, inexorable destruction. Though those in the audience who count Schrader as one of our most distinguished auteurs hope that First Reformed isn't his final film, were this to be his cinematic Swan Song, it's a hell of a note to go out on. In looking to his past, Schrader is helping us face a bleak future, reaching out beyond the screen and becoming an unexpected voice of reassurance during troubling times. We are not lost.
First Reformed is now playing in theaters.