Paul Schrader’s powerful new drama First Reformed is Shaker furniture in movie form – stark, plain, conceived in austere and intelligent good taste; beautifully made, in fact, but maybe more designed for looking at than actually sitting on. It’s about a man of God and his personal spiritual ordeal, building inexorably to an apocalyptic climax. Schrader has spoken of being inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning film Ida, but for me it was more as if Bergman’s Winter Light had been remade with Travis Bickle in the leading role.
The resemblances here to Schrader’s classic script for Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver are surely deliberate. There is an unforgettably grisly moment when the tormented priest, harrowed by stomach cancer and alcoholism, pours a slug of shocking pink Pepto-Bismol into his whisky; he and we gaze into the yucky gloop unfurling in the booze, very like Travis staring at the Alka-Selzer fizzing in his glass in closeup, while he takes a break from driving his cab around New York’s unwashed streets of sin.
Priest - Centre - First - Reformed - Reverend
The priest at the centre of First Reformed is the Reverend Ernst Toller (evidently an allusion to the German dramatist who took his own life in exile in 1939), played with unflinching conviction by Ethan Hawke. He is serious, disciplined, shown at first writing by hand in a laceratingly self-critical journal. Toller is never shown out of ecclesiastical dress, always sporting a stern side-parting; the sort of haircut he probably had for his first communion. He is a Protestant, like Schrader, and there is some robust joking around on the subject of Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, although the preoccupation with guilt, and indeed Toller’s own ascetic image, surely also have something Catholic in them.
Toller is a well-liked priest who comes from a family with strong military and...
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