First Reformed

 

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Echoes of Ingmar Bergman are overwhelming in this very serious drama from Paul Schrader.

 
First Reformed

Ethan Hawke

 

There was a time when Paul Schrader was firmly established as a formidable talent in cinema. He first made his name as a scriptwriter (most notably on Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese) and then went on to become a respected director who approached his work with the serious intent that one would expect from somebody who had written a book on the transcendental art of Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. Sadly, recent years have seen a decided decline in the quality of his work, but First Reformed, on which he is both writer and director, has been acclaimed by many as a return to form and he himself, acknowledging his ambitions here, has described it as Bergmanesque in character.

 

Back in 1980, Schrader's American Gigolo was spoken of by him as a work inspired by Bresson's brilliant Pickpocket of 1959. This time around the relevant earlier film is not openly cited, but it must be the case that First Reformed is not merely Bergmanesque but a piece which, regardless of additions, has its roots in the 1963 film Winter Light which just happens to be my own favourite among Bergman's many masterpieces. How one views First Reformed will inevitably be influenced by the extent to which one is familiar with the work which inspired it. Here Ethan Hawke is the pastor, a widower with a dwindling congregation, attending his First Reformed church outside of New York. As before there is a man, Michael (Philip Ettinger), so disturbed by the nightmare of human existence that he commits suicide (although now his fears centre not on living in a nuclear age but on environmental issues ignored and the failure to face up to climate change).

 

In Winter Light, a loyal spinster, unforgettably portrayed by Ingrid Thulin, was the leading female character, but here she is demoted to the minor figure of Esther (Victoria Hill) a church supporter, although she is still shown to be emotionally drawn to the pastor. Now the originally less significant widow of the suicide - Mary played by Amanda Seyfried - becomes central. Two things are entirely new. One which provides the film's best scene concerns a church benefactor (Michael Gaston) who is also a successful businessman and who brings pressure to bear to keep politics out of religion as a major event, the reconsecration of the church on its 250th anniversary, approaches. The other fresh development lies in the pastor's increasing identification with the dead Michael and his outlook: this provides what becomes almost a thriller element since we don't know just how far this will lead him.

 

Schrader's film is properly serious but Hawke, fine actor that he is, cannot begin to match the inner depth of Gunnar Bjornstrand in Winter Light and the film, considerably longer than Bergman's, quite lacks the intensity that he achieved. Furthermore, while the issue of the extent to which the Church should be involved in social issues is entirely valid, Schrader seems unwilling to follow Bergman in confronting directly the fact  that God may not exist at all (Schrader may have fewer doubts as a Calvinist but that element unquestionably added to the stark impact of the 1963 film). Late on, there's a levitation scene closer to Pasolini than to Bergman and we find too a romantic episode in which Schrader pays homage to Hitchcock. All of this fascinates without necessarily making First Reformed a truly successful film. Add a climax that can be interpreted in more ways than one and an ending so abrupt that one wonders if the film has broken down and it is impossible for me to feel that this film is as good as some people would have us believe. But, if you haven't seen Winter Light, watching First Reformed will offer a totally different experience and one that will seem more worthwhile regardless of any reservations felt when the film approaches its conclusion.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer), Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger, Van Hansis, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Kristin Villanueva.

 

Dir Paul Schrader, Pro Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa and Frank Murray, Screenplay Paul Schrader, Ph Alexander Dynan, Pro Des Grace Yun, Ed Benjamin Rodriguez Jr, Music Brian Williams, Costumes Olga Mill.

 

Killer Films/Fibonacci Films/Big Indie Pictures/Omeira Studio Partners-Picturehouse Entertainment.
113 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 13 July 2018. Cert. 15.