Yes, video stores still exist in LA, and they have a purpose, both as a repository for films abandoned by the streaming boom and a forum of ideas for the geeky, the devout, and the reprobate. At one of them, I mentioned to the clerk that, with First Reformed, writer-director Paul Schrader seemed to be having a moment again for the first time in years. He agreed, then asked me about Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. “Did you see Winter Light? First Reformed is basically 70% Winter Light.”
Having seen both, that number sounds correct, and I’d add that a lot of the remaining 30% belongs to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. (Schrader, in his life as a critic, literally wrote the book on Bresson, before writing the script for Taxi Driver and having a directing career of his own). In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke enters humbly as the reverend of a dwindling church in upstate New York. He is a sickly, solitary individual who hides most of his thoughts from others, as if he’s determined that his convictions must require loneliness. And his crisis of faith—not in god so much as in mankind—intensifies when one of his parishioners, distraught over environmental pollution, loses the will to live and leaves behind a widow. (In Bergman’s telling, it was fear of the atomic bomb).
There is a certain audacious reverence in lifting so much, particularly in a year when Bergman retrospectives have been touring American rep houses. But then, America makes a fertile and rewarding place to move the religious traditions of arthouse past, where Schrader’s own country priest can serve as a soulful, Bressonian counterweight to megachurches and so much Christian kitsch. The past isn’t dead, especially not at movie theaters. And in a year when Wes Anderson remixed Kurosawa with stop-motion dogs for the inner-children of twenty-somethings everywhere, the un-hip, anachronistic man-and-god sincerity of First Reformed not only has its own distinct power, but is something to be treasured. Schrader is a terrific storyteller, and don’t miss how much his style can contribute: the look of the film plays a muted color scheme, shot in the Academy ratio and lit like Dreyer (another Schrader touchstone), against unnatural neon colors that feel sickly and toxic in comparison—like the sight of a cloud of Pepto Bismol in a glass of liquor.
Hawke is terrific and against-type, though so recognizable that you can see why Bresson wanted unfamiliar faces to play his modern-day pilgrims. I’m not sure Schrader sells the environmental theme as more than a plot device; then again, committing suicide over nuclear anxiety always struck me as a bit histrionic, and Winter Light is safely considered a classic. The part of First Reformed bound to be most divisive is the ending, which deserves controversy not over whether it’s too bloody, too shocking, or too lurid, but whether it comes across as silly. (Surely a doomsday sign that the world is more jaded now than it was in Bergman’s 1960s, or even Taxi Driver‘s 1970s). But it’s the film’s own, and it sells—or, to use a more deservedly pure word, it offers—an idea worth pondering: that in the face of spiritual and psychological despair, desperation and carnality are what keep you going. And what’s more, they may not even be betrayals or sins. A theme that Bergman would have appreciated.
First Reformed is currently available on home video and video-on-demand. For what it’s worth, the clerk liked it too.