Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 27, 2018 5:59 am 
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Too much

Paul Schrader's First Reformed is true to this writer-director's deepest instincts and sources. It might seem like an ultimate film for him. Its influences are so strong it might also seem like an exceptionally polished student film. This "student" happens to have long ago published a book about the kind of movies his own new one is based on, or grows out of, or almost seems copied from.* Two of these you can't ignore: Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light and Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. Perhaps in the reverse order. First comes the lost, desperate priest half-starving himself and wrecking his gut with alcohol while he keeps a journal (Bresson). Then comes the desperate priest at a little isolated church called on by a pregnant wife to comfort her suicidal husband (Bergman). And then mix in lots of other influences, including Tarkovsky for a levitating couple. But those are the essential ingredients.

It all sort of works and in parts it can hit you pretty hard (where it doesn't become so off-putting you want to laugh), and the spin is utterly contemporary. But you can only recommend First Reformed to earnest film buffs. Those who already know Paul Schrader wrote the screenplays for Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation of Christ. The new movie is very much of a piece with these.

Reverend Toller (an excellent Ethan Hawke) encouraged his son to go to Iraq, the son died there, and as a result his wife left him. Formerly a military chaplain, he is recently transferred to a 250-year-old wood church. It is mainly just visited by tourists, with only a handful of parishioners, and it is owned by a mega-church (confidently headed by Cedric the Entertainer) whose leader is hand-in-glove with fat cats like the owner of the Balq Corp (Michael Gaston), a major polluter. The mega-church is going to run an anniversary celebration of First Reformed; the organ has to be fixed. The young, desperate husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a radical environmentalist. His pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Siegfried, not so convincing) is concerned about him. How can Toller help Michael, when his voice-over from the journal shows he's so desperate himself?

Instead Toller is drawn to Michael's environmental cause, where he has come to move toward extreme measures. The most arresting moments in the film come in Toller's meeting with the environmentalist when the camera looks into Ettinger's haunted eyes, his freckled face and wooly beard as he speaks his concerns about the future of the planet. The anguish one young man might feel taking on all this comes through strongly and so does the extremity of what science predicts for our planet. Michael doesn't want to bring up a child to the planet's anticipated future of flood, drought, and social upheaval. As long as Schrader holds us inside this young man's mindset he achieves his goal of taking us to a terrible place of moral pain and holding us trapped there.

Maybe one can believe Toller's attraction to extreme action for the environment. It's harder to accept the other gyrations he goes through. They seem too much like trying on costumes and assaying possible roles, and the surprise ending also seems like a stunt. The constant ominous background music harangues us too much. Schrader tries to do too much, deploys too many elements in the film, with the mega-church, environmental crisis, hateful polluters, and two desperate men. Look at how simple and focused Bresson's and Bergman's films are.

There are elements that are impeccable. The 250-year-old church sends its simple message of purer times. So does the austerity of the head-on, symmetrical camera blocking, the blue light. Oddly, Hawke didn't quite convince me as a whisky priest, yet he looks very right in a clerical collar and old-fashioned soutane, and I liked the long black overcoat. I can't forget the meeting with the radical environmentalist. Some things in this movie Schrader does very right.

First Reformed, 113 mins., debuted at Venice 31 Aug. 2017; showed in at least 17 other international festivals. Metascore 85%. US release began 18 May 2018; UK, from 13 July.
*See the recent Village Voice interview with Schrader.

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