Paul Schrader: Love Me or Die
by Aaron Lehmann
Paul Schrader’s "First Reformed" is a cinematic meditation on an array of modern
anxieties regarding faith, guilt, redemption, extremism, and human connection; all
of which are portrayed in conjunction with increasingly apocalyptic visions of
natural disaster fueled by Climate Change. The film stars Ethan Hawke as
Reverend Ernest Toller, the pastor of a small church, which survives due to its
historical significance rather than by way of his spiritual leadership or its modest
In his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Schrader points out, “the premise
of 'First Reformed' begins when a young man seeks counseling from a Reverend
because he does not believe it is right to bring a child into this world. That’s not a
question that we would have been asking 25 years ago. But my kids, as well as
their friends, do ask this question now.”
Climate Change is a leading concern throughout the world according to the Pew
Research Center. Recently the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
reported that the world has just twelve years to make the changes needed to
prevent significant increases in extreme heat, drought, floods and poverty. At the
same time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and
the White House regularly messages that climate change is a hoax or fake news.
These contradictory forecasts between the scientific community and the halls of
power set the stage for an overall mood of despair, which Schrader masterfully
captures in The First Reformed.
In mediocre fashion, Reverend Toller tends to the grounds and maintains the
infrastructure of the Church, as little to no demands are made of him vis-à-vis his
spiritual authority. He is, in fact, introduced to us as being in the midst of his own
existential crisis, which he consistently and unsuccessfully treats with alcohol
consumption. His body suffers from an illness, seemingly brought about by the
toxicity of his habits. The illness of his body is in line with the decline of the health
of the Earth’s ecosystem, both signifying an imbalance brought about by human
overconsumption and neglect. We can see this illustrated in the symbolic
imagery of Reverend Toller pouring Pepto-Bismol into his glass of whiskey. Its
thick, unnatural looking consistency slowly clouds the alcohol, reminiscent of
crude oil infiltrating the oceans after one of the many catastrophic oil spills of
We are introduced to Reverend Toller’s inner dialogue as he begins writing in a
journal early into the film. The journal is an experiment by design, as he states
how it will be burned at the end of one year, evoking Tibetan Buddhist sand
mandalas, which signify the transitory nature of material life. Although his health
is declining and his church largely unsuccessful, we find our main character in a
state of contentment within his isolation; a slow moving suicide, which he seems
to have accepted as inevitability, worthy of his guilt.
Reverend’s help, requiring him to fully inhabit his position of spiritual authority.
Mary is pregnant and her husband, Michael, an environmental activist played by
Philip Ettinger, believes it to be a “sin” to bring a human life into a world being
propelled towards its own destruction. Michael’s outlook leads him to believe that
an abortion would be the most humane course of action, while Mary disagrees
and has faith that life will prevail. She reaches out to Reverend Toller in hopes
he can help Michael overcome his desperate worldview and accept the life of
their unborn child.
When Reverend Toller is advising Michael, he tells him, “Wisdom is holding two
contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously – Hope and despair. Holding
these two ideas in our head is life itself.” This idea is integral to the aspirations of
the Reverend’s own personal spiritual ambitions. It can be felt subconsciously
throughout the film as it was shot in 4:3 aspect ratio and filmed with a conscious
symmetry within the square frame. This reinforces a striving or need for balance,
or the awareness of the principle of Yin and Yang.
In 1972, Paul Schrader published his essay "Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu,
Bresson, Dreyer" that is the study of the Holy in the art of cinema. This style is
utilized in the telling of The First Reformed in the way Schrader describes it as “a
withholding device” and the creation of “dead time”, which enables the space for
audience participation within the story. “The use of time, or boredom, as
technique” in turn “activates the viewer” using “boredom as an esthetic device”.
When teetering on this uncomfortable, yet not unbearable level of boredom, the
audience can then be suddenly hit with a “decisive action”, followed by silence.
This storytelling style, which seems closely aligned with the laws of music, illicit
an emotional response in the viewer far greater than if he or she were stimulated
and manipulated with equal measure from the beginning to end of a film.
This same gradual build of tension, and intense and extreme climactic release experienced in "First Reformed" is equally significant in Schrader’s screenplay for the 1976 film "Taxi Driver", directed by Martin Scorsese; this being just one of many compelling overlaps between "First Reformed" and "Taxi Driver". They both have male lead characters that are isolated on the outskirts of society, and are inching towards potentially violent ends. Both characters give us access into their inner thoughts via their private journaling. Both characters develop a romantic infatuation with seemingly unattainable female characters, and when they become convinced that their romantic fulfillments are an impossibility, either by the woman of desire, as in "Taxi Driver", or by the repression of self as in "First Reformed", both Travis Bickle and Reverend Toller resort to pursuing a cathartic climax by means of violent political action almost as an alternative to an orgasmic one of connection.
If this tension and release pattern were seen as relating to human sexual rhythms and patterns, these stories seem to imply that if existential dread is not met with love, it will be inevitably expressed through extremism and violence. Transcendental Style, in its most simplistic expression is perhaps the attempt to masterfully manipulate tension and release.