First Reformed isn’t the first time Paul Schrader has made a movie about a man struggling with his demons, but it might just be his best.
Starring Ethan Hawke, First Reformed is a deeply affecting story of a pastor at a small New York church grappling with his faith in the face of inexorable existential dread. At a time when so many movies struggle for timeliness in the quest to attain the rather fickle label as “the movie we need right now,” First Reformed demonstrates a powerful prescience, capturing our current reality with remarkable insight.
The film, one that mines deep into the psyche of its protagonist, shares quite a few notable similarities with other movies in Schrader’s filmography. In particular, shades of American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters are all evident in Schrader’s newest work.
All of these movies focus on lonely or isolated men wrestling with a deep-seated anxiety about the state of their lives and the world at large. They struggle, on account of trauma or idiosyncrasy or both, to connect with those around them.
The protagonists in both Light Sleeper and First Reformed record their thoughts and experiences in journals that serve as the primary narration in each movie.
In Mishima and First Reformed, we follow the main characters as they work to reconcile their more radical political ideology with their place of power in their communities.
American Gigolo and First Reformed feature men who form relationships with married women that alter their lives in significant ways.
These men are, for better or worse, Schrader’s type. They are not what one might label as good, yet they are all chasing goodness; they are preoccupied with doing what is right, even if those choices conflict or contradict with other elements in their lives.
Schrader’s men have dark pasts, clouded with trauma, serious faults, and regrets. In all of these films, the protagonist’s personal history informs the story itself.
In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Hawke) explains how the death of his son drove him to the church. In Light Sleeper, the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend resurfaces, forcing him to come to terms with their toxic and abusive relationship. Of course, similar themes run through both American Gigolo and Mishima.
While the men in Schrader’s films may remain similar decade after decade, First Reformed proves he is still finding new ways to make these characters compelling. Schrader seems to be working out for himself how masculinity – as both a character trait and a societal construct – impacts the very psychological condition of men.
As they struggle to define themselves, to find their place in the world, they are forced to confront the demons created by their own masculinity.
In looking at these similarities, it may be tempting to label First Reformed a retread of Schrader’s earlier work. However, in no way do these shared characteristics cheapen or reduce what Schrader has accomplished with First Reformed. In fact, what’s so impressive about the movie is how fresh these elements are.
The external, abject violence we are so accustomed to seeing permeate Schrader’s work is turned inward. In a rather ingenious choice, the movie bonds radical environmental activism and spiritual turmoil – two concepts united by a shared existential dread.
On one hand, the fear that we are complicit in the irrevocable damage of our planet; on the other, the anxiety that our faith in God may be misplaced, or worse, disingenuous.
This inner tumultuous conflict plays out across Ethan Hawke’s face in extreme close-ups throughout the film, later externalized by the character’s digestive tract infection that causes him to cough and urinate blood.
In First Reformed, the volatile existential dread is far more profound than what we’ve seen in Schrader’s previous films. What’s surprising is how the end of the film provides a small dose of optimism, a stark contrast from Schrader’s typical ending. Whereas so many of Schrader’s movies end in death, First Reformed chooses a different path.
While I originally considered this choice to be one of restraint or maturity on Schrader’s behalf, I now admit to that being a rather shortsighted conclusion.
In fact, I see Schrader’s embrace of life, or his resistance to simply conclude the narrative with death, as a far bolder choice. It’s an acknowledgement or acceptance of a difficult truth: that in life, the only way to conquer fear is to live through it, not alone but with people beside you that love you.
Perhaps the uniting principal among Schrader’s few good men is that they are all seeking absolution – a release from the very situations they have put themselves in. First Reformed marks a departure for Schrader, one that is striking in its revisionist take on a familiar story.