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Faith In The End Times: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed
Brian Raven Ehrenpreis , July 14th, 2018 09:05

In Paul Schrader's new film, First Reformed, Brian Raven Ehrenpreis, finds the perfect fulfilment of the director's own promise of a 'transcendental cinema'

Can god forgive us for what we’ve done to this world? It’s a question that increasingly comes to dominate the mind of Reverend Ernst Toller (played by Ethan Hawke in a career best performance) in Paul Schrader’s new film First Reformed.

Schrader, the screenwriter behind films such as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and De Palma’s Obsession, as well as the director of American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and Cat People (1982), has at 71 years of age managed to make a film that is more politically and socially engaged with the world than many of his younger contemporaries dare match. First Reformed is a savage act of spiritual self-flagellation masquerading as pulp and a searing indictment of the moral order of things in the Anthropocene.

The film centers on Reverend Ernst Toller, a quietly despairing ex-military pastor who ministers to a flock of faithful that can be counted on one hand in a tourist church in upstate New York. Toller is a solitary figure who privately drinks to excess, unable to recover from the psychic wounds left by his son’s death in the Iraq War – a war he encouraged his son to enlist for.

The scope of his suffering is not restricted to his mental anguish, as he also suffers physically. We watch as he pisses blood and struggles with various other ailments in the privacy of an apartment so sparsely furnished that it looks like a cell in a hermitage.

Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Toller is a dedicated diarist, and in storied Christian tradition chains himself to the endlessly spinning wheel of confession followed by spiritual critique. Mercilessly castigating himself for his failings, Toller sits night after night at his desk with his whiskey, writing in his diary – ignoring the sorry state of his crumbling flesh – purely focused on the perfection of his spiritual form.

The shadow of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) looms large over First Reformed – a film that also features a diary-keeping priest afflicted by a cancer that ravages both his body and his soul – and Schrader’s First Reformed feels like a brilliant admixture of the sensibilities inherent to Diary and Taxi Driver (with some of Bergman’s Winter Light (1963) thrown in for good measure).

Unusually for Schrader, he is for the first time in his career working in a filmic mode that he himself championed in his seminal 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. In his book Schrader writes of a transcendental style of filmmaking that “stylizes reality by eliminating (or nearly eliminating) those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience, thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power.” Against the reigning mainstream style of psychological realism in film, transcendental style is characterized by its relentless commitment to asceticism, a commitment which entails a stylistic paring back that emphasizes austere camera movements, limited editing for editorial comment, and a lack of affect in it’s actors.

Schrader’s transcendental style is one where many of the formal qualities a film are stripped away – with the ready pleasures of swift plot development and soundtrack music jettisoned in favor of a more complete immersion into the transcendent reality of the image. This type of cinema is slow and contemplative, and often intentionally alienating for the viewer. It is a cinema interested in gaps, which as Schrader asserts, can “bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.”

First Reformed is a work that very much falls within Schrader’s own theoretical framework concerning transcendental style. It is a slow, tense, and deeply probing film that is intensely focused on tracing the genesis of a single idea within a single mind. It is a film about wrestling with concepts so large and so horrifying that they come to blot out everything else.

Thematically orbiting two of the most foundational fears of our age: the rise of the religiously motivated ideological extremism and the death of the planet, First Reformed is the story of Reverend Toller’s descent into an ideology of eco-radicalism. The primary inflection point in the film comes in the form of an interaction Toller has with an environmental activist (Philip Ettinger) that he is asked to counsel. This activist, giving voice to a uniquely modern anti-natalism (with shades of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement), wants to abort his pregnant wife’s (Amanda Seyfreid) unborn child, thinking it the ultimate act of spiritual cruelty to bring a new life into a world that is itself dying. This encounter leaves Toller so morally and spiritually devastated that he begins a descent into a radicalism that at times feels more akin to demonic possession, as he slowly begins to adopt the views of the activist that he was meant to counsel.

Unable to reconcile the possibility that any righteous God would allow humans to so befoul his own creation, Toller becomes increasingly unable to attain the definition he himself gives of eudemonia: the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in ones head at the same time – hope and despair.

There is a fascinating logic at work in the psychopathology of eco-radicalism that Schrader is excavating in First Reformed; one that has to do with the difficulty of human thought when presented with what eco-theorist Timothy Morton calls the Hyperobject; an object that is so massively distributed in time and space that it transcends any spatiotemporal specificity. In other words, a system that is simply too large and all consuming to be held properly in the mind, to be cogently conceptualised.

If the good life as Toller envisions it is predicated on balance and the ability to recognize contradictions, embracing the Hyperobject of global warming as humanity’s true structuring reality is for Toller a radical reformation of his thought – a revelation of the darkest kind, and an opening of his mind to possibility of pure planetary horror.

What is so laudable about First Reformed is that it chooses to take seriously just what exactly it means to try and think the unthinkable; to think through the death of our planet from degree zero, from the inside of a problem so large that its horizon line cannot be seen or even properly imagined. First Reformed isn’t just paying lip-service to these ideas, it is deadly serious about exploring what it means to try and think through an encounter with a mind shattering realization, and what it means to live with the knowledge that we are all of us living in end times – now – that this is the apocalypse.

Apocalypse as a term is often misunderstood and misused but it’s original meaning is that of an end coupled with an unveiling or disclosure. An apocalypse is a lifting of the veil – a type of revelation that functions as an ending: a fundamental break from what came before it.

Revelation in Schrader’s film functions as if it were something akin to a physical infection. Once Toller begins to accept the reality of all-consuming catastrophe that is global warming, his thought process changes and his physical debility also accelerates. Toller’s revelation about global warming feels as if it is not only devouring his soul, but his body as well. It cannot help but feel as if Schrader is suggesting that to even think about the world as it actually is in the anthropocene –to even consider global warming in it’s totality – is to be fundamentally unwell; that to get ones mind around planetary sickness, one must also be infected by sickness in kind.

Throughout the film Toller is chastised by his spiritual counter point, the head of the Mega-Church group Abundant Life, played by Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles. Kyles tells Toller that that he is always “too much in the garden,” a reference to Jesus personally taking on the suffering of his followers in the garden of Gethsamane, and that he models himself too much on Thomas Merton who he sees as an overly intellectual hermit. Kyles chastises Toller for serving as a sort of spiritual tuning fork doing little more than resonating with the pain of the planet, instead of doing God’s work of ministering to the people.

First Reformed is very much focused on spiritual self-critique and how ideological extremism can spring from a monomaniacal engagement with a single idea. As if to emphasize this, we see on Toller’s Desk a paperweight with the printed image of a hand with a hazelnut lying in it’s palm, a reference to Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, a figure who – like Toller – also lived in dark times. Julian suffered through the plague years in England in the fourteen century and famously spoke of looking at a single hazelnut until it assumed the proportions of the entire world. This seems spiritually akin to what Toller is doing in First Reformed: extrapolating universal and planetary conclusions from an isolated engagement with a singular subject, a process that Schrader seems to see as a key route to ideological self-radicalization.

Where Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was an avatar of pure anger, Toller in First Reformed is the embodiment of blackest despair, and once it has sunk in for him that planetary extinction and the death of the species are the inevitable outcomes if late-capitalism continues apace, life becomes utterly intolerable. But Toller isn’t only grappling with crushing spiritual despair; he is also concerned with what he himself can do to bring some measure of God’s justice to an unjust world in the here and now. He believes himself to be standing on holy ground, and for all of his self-flagellation, he comes to believe radical environmentalism to be a spiritually righteous cause.

First Reformed has a strong sense of institutional critique, not only of the modern church, but also of capitalism, big business, and government. It’s a film that feels extremely of the moment because of the all-consuming atmosphere of moral degradation it creates. The picture Schrader paints of a broken down world kept moving only by the grim inertia of a spiritually bankrupt capitalism is oppressive. The world of First Reformed then, is much like our own: a completely exasperating mix of apathy and exploitation. It is a world where the planet is being destroyed to line the pockets of the few and a world where those who are supposed to be our moral arbiters are either apathetic or actively collaborating in these efforts.

The question with which Toller wrestles is what the role of the true man of God should be in a world such as this. Having realized that he is living in the end times, that he himself is dying, that his own church and society are spiritually and morally destitute, what then is to be done? The answer he arrives at is one that involves recourse to a particularly spectacular form of violence that has in recent times most been associated with political and religiously motivated strife in the Muslim world. As First Reformed hurtles towards it’s climax, we watch as the horror of the mind gives way to the horror of the body, the film transforming before our very eyes from a piece of minimalist slow-cinema into an adrenaline driven pulp spectacle. Having reached the limits of the word, Toller shifts his focus to the deed.

Schrader’s work has always been particularly sensitive to key developments in the political and social climate and his films often stumble directly into the heart of the zeitgeist, especially when dealing with issues surrounding ideology and violence. In this way, First Reformed is the ultimate culmination of the themes he has been exploring throughout his long career. It is an impeccably made film, encapsulating his love for Bresson’s contemplative transcendental cinema, his pulp roots, as well as his keen eye for some of the most important moral, political, and spiritual questions of our time. It is a fierce cry of despair hurled against the reality of life in an era characterized by moral abasement on a planetary scale. It is a film about a man deep in thought, struggling to conceptualize a time when there will be no thought, because there will be no humans and no earth.

First Reformed is a film that recognizes and tarries with one of the most fundamentally terrifying truths of life in the anthropocene: the abject horror of looking into the future and seeing nothing there.

First Reformed, directed by Paul Schrader, is at UK cinemas now