STATIC SHOTS GRADUALLY PROGRESS IN MOVEMENT, LEADING TO CLIMAX AKIN TO THAT OF 'OBSESSION', PERHAPS
Paul Schrader's new film, First Reformed, is getting outstanding reviews left and right. I have yet to see it, but more than one critic has mentioned that the film leads to a climactic shot that resembles the finale of Schrader and Brian De Palma's Obsession. The intriguing thing to note here is that Bernard Herrmann, who composed the score for Obsession, urged De Palma to cut Schrader's fourth act from the film, to end on the swirling shot of Michael and Amy embracing at the airport. Schrader was not very happy about the cut. And yet... here we are... Also note, each of the articles linked to below refer to the ending of First Reformed as dreamlike...
First Reformed's intellectualized, detached, and emotionally reticent notion of suicide recalls Bresson's The Devil, Probably. Bresson, along with Ozu and Dreyer, formed a trinity at the heart of Schrader's book Transcendental Style in Film, and the filmmaker has faithfully returned to them again and again, channeling them in most of his directorial efforts, working within the so-called “Tarkovsky Ring” (films made within this ring will find commercial distribution, films like those of Bresson and Roberto Rossellini, while films outside of this ring are destined for museum and festival existences). Schrader was raised in an austerely Calvinist home, but at the age of 17 he converted to cinema. First Reformed is about Schrader's film theories, about the transcendent possibilities of the medium, as much as it is about religion.
The film is, even by Schrader's standards, a bleak endeavor, concerned with the durability of spirituality, its susceptibility to corruption and radicalism, and its place in modern American life: with the slow decay of the planet, as well as with pain, penance, and the validity of suicide and murder. Invidious, at times startlingly beautiful, and at others startlingly ugly, it encapsulates Schrader's cinematic philosophies, the testament of a man who worships film. It's a churlish and controlled film, suffused with dolor yet agleam with the prospect of hope, each assiduous and apoplectic composition as neat and orderly as the garments Toller adjusts during his morning routine.
Shot by Alexander Dynan, First Reformed has a mostly familiar, competent aesthetic, with subjects and their surroundings structured in a geometric style reminiscent, again, of Ozu. The repetition of shots—what film theorist David Bordwell refers to as “planimetric shots,” faces isolated in the frame, buildings filmed head-on, the camera unmoving and observant—insinuate a life of tedium, devoid of variety. There's little ambiguity in the deep focus. The camera isn't liberated. But as Toller's faith grows increasingly strained, his revelations more and more exceptional, the shots go aslant, the camera moving more. The final shot, twirling oneirically, the camera jubilant as it circles around Toller and Mary in bloody embracement, feels torn from a Brian De Palma film, out of place with the phlegmatic style of Schrader's. It suggests a dream, an Empyrean awakening. It brings to mind a bible quote, from Revelation 17:6: “And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her, I marveled greatly.”
First Reformed feels like a culmination of and response to Schrader's career. It harks back to Martin Scorsese's New York nightmare Taxi Driver by using a journal as a narrative device. Both films use a laconic, unexpurgated voiceover to elucidate on the inner turmoil of a man whose well-being is eroding and whose disdain for the people around him grows with each passing day and toward a violent epiphany. Schrader has said that he knows his obituaries will read, “Writer of Taxi Driver,” despite his own idiosyncratic career as a filmmaker. With First Reformed, he seems to be rewriting his own legacy, revisiting the infatuations and compulsions that inspired the Scorsese film.
Travis Bickle wants to wash from the streets the decay he perceives in modern life. He's a man who anoints himself an angel of death, come to smite New York City's miscreants. The backseat of his cab is, at the end of each night, doused in blood and cum, the way the faithful are awash in the blood of the lamb. In Travis one finds the seeds of Schrader's obsessions: penitence, sin, tortured veterans, working-class malaise, men with complicated relationships with sex. Like Travis, Toller sees grotesqueries and unforgivable misdeeds, and his notion of atonement becomes more extreme. He turns away the longing of his ex-wife, Esther (Victoria Hill), who leads the megachurch's choir and secretly pines, in pain, for Mary. His faith, while tested, never corrodes; it becomes more steadfast, more Old Testament-like. Misery begets penance, suffering ameliorating the sins of humanity. Toller rejoices in his suffering, and through him Schrader has found his faith in cinema renewed.
Q&A: After ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Raging Bull,’ Paul Schrader talks ‘First Reformed’
by Jason Fraley
For the role of the conflicted clergyman, Schrader said Ethan Hawke was an easy choice.
“There’s a certain physiognomy in playing a man of the cloth, be it Montgomery Clift in ‘I Confess,’ Belmondo in ‘Leon Morin’ or Claude Laydu in ‘Diary of a Country Priest.’ So, you’re thinking about actors who have that physiognomy, maybe Jake Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, but Ethan was 10 years older than them and his face was getting some very interesting wrinkles. I started thinking he’s just right for this. I sent him the script and he responded right away.”
Hawke’s performance goes from contemplative to harrowing as he considers ecoterrorism.
“He’s going to blow up a church, but this pregnant woman arrives and he can’t do it, so he reverts to turning himself into the sacrifice. This is a pathological fallacy deeply embedded in Christianity, the notion of suicidal glory, that my own suffering can redeem me. It’s not what the Bible teaches, (nor) what Jesus taught. It is a fallacy that is virtually the same as Jihadism.”
Hawke’s self-purgation finds him drinking Drano and wrapping himself in barbed wire.
“It’s a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Wise Blood’ (by) John Huston, where Hazel Motes at the end of that book puts his eyes out, wraps him up with wire and goes out preaching.”
This sacrifice is ultimately alleviated when Seyfried enters the room and the two embrace amid a swirling camera. It’s the first time the camera moves. Schrader uses a static camera with a 4:3 aspect ratio for the entire movie, before unleashing a circling camera like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) or Brian De Palma’s “Obsession” (1976), which Schrader wrote.
“When you start working on the spiritual side of the street, the still side of the street, you have to stretch time,” Schrader said. “This is a very static film. The camera does not move, pan or tilt. It just sits there. It is very passive aggressive and takes too long to do everything. All of a sudden at the end, it jumps like a bird from a cage into a kinetic, whirly-gate soul in flight.”
As the camera circles, the soundtrack delivers the spiritual hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Film buffs will recall Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), though Schrader insists it’s a reference to singer George Beverly Shea of the Billy Graham Crusade.
“That song, my father would play over and over again,” Schrader said. “(The final scene) is meant to be read in different ways. If you want to say he’s dead and imagining this, I wouldn’t object. If you want to say it’s a miracle, I wouldn’t object. If you want to say it is a redemption, I wouldn’t object. In fact, I don’t know the answer. It’s all of those things put together.”
This isn’t Schrader’s first ambiguous, dreamlike ending. A similar fate befell Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), who similarly attempted an act of terror before embracing his better angels. In that case, it was a political assassination before shifting to vigilante justice by killing the pimp (Harvey Keitel) of a teen prostitute (Jodie Foster).