Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.
Writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017), starring a subtly powerful Ethan Hawke as whiskey reverend Ernst Toller in a dark night of the environmental soul, may not succeed on all fronts (for example, I have issues with two scene transitions that cut away too early), but it works its magic where it counts: It’s a textbook case, literally, of Schrader’s concept of transcendental style. Schrader tries to portray a world in which supernatural grace can intervene at any moment. To do so, he uses static and flat compositions, understated acting, grayscale colors (cinematography by Alexander Dynan), and no music cues (to a certain extent substituting Toller’s quiet voiceover monologue) to craft a muted everyday existence—until it suddenly isn’t, at which point all these elements rush back in. The poster for the film conveys the same idea.
Toller tries to offer guidance to depressed radical environmentalist Michael (Philip Ettinger), who later kills himself, leading Toller to meditate on the source of Michael’s despair. The sole conversation between the two is key to the film; without Michael’s infectious passion, Toller would have no narrative arc. I’m happy to report that Ettinger acquits himself masterfully. He’s aided a bit by the position of the camera in shot-reverse shot angles that flirt with Ozu placements, but his worry for the planet, for humanity’s future, and for the meaning of God’s creation is palpably authentic. Schrader’s writing crackles with dialectical engagement.
After Michael’s death, Toller comforts his grieving widow, Mary (an understated Amanda Seyfried), and they grow closer. The first breaking of the spell of banality is when he accompanies her on a bike ride, something she used to do with Michael. After establishing the scene, Schrader gives us a tracking shot of the leafless winter branches overhead, accompanied by a soaring score (by Lustmord). The imagery is well-chosen: In life, we’re seldom able to move at speed while flat on our backs, so this kind of shot is always wondrous.
The second transcendental moment (there’re three, always with Mary) is when Mary flees a bout of late-night despair and goes to Toller’s rectory, where they do another thing she used to do with Michael, called the Magical Mystery Tour: They lie one atop the other, facing each other and fully clothed, and maximize body contact. And then, after a brief spell of sexual tension, they start to levitate, Tarkovsky style. What follows is both corny and affecting, a sequence that directly communicates to us the core of environmental activism without artifice or even, I’m tempted to say, art. That’s why “Magical Mystery Tour” is such a great name for this: It’s silly and profound, hokey and possibly an urban legend, all at the same time.
The third moment is also the ending of the film. Before Michael’s death, Mary finds a suicide vest in the garage, and Toller takes it with him as a precaution—this is another reason why Michael’s death affects him so deeply. By the end of the film, Toller is fully radicalized into the green cause and plans to finish what Michael started, but when he sees Mary in the crowd, he just can’t pull the trigger (so to speak). Instead, he redirects his righteous anger inward, wrapping himself in barbed wire. Just before he goes out to denounce the polluting powers that be, in walks Mary. What follows is a dialectical image of the highest caliber: an arc shot, set to diegetic hymnal music, of the two kissing and embracing, the pain adding to the eroticism, the eroticism heightening the pain. It’s as if the entirety of Phantom Thread (2017) were condensed into a single shot. And then the film ends, leaving us to ponder if, despite what he preaches every Sunday, love is really the answer—and if it’s really love, or even real at all.
In between the heavy stuff, Schrader arranges a web of complicity and moral entanglement that gives context to Toller’s environmental activism. Though a man of the cloth, he can’t abstract himself from these entanglements, and his very vocation is a compromise. When he speaks of God’s creation, he’s not just speaking of a nature “out there,” as both his boss, Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), and his major funding source, top-polluting industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) seem to be; he’s talking about all of creation, me and you and Michael included. Jeffers accuses him of always being in the Garden of Gethsemane—as if we could just choose not to be there. The film is calling us all to action (or reflection, which is also an action). After all, Reverend Toller is merely the “first” reformed.