On this episode of Fresh Films, the guys debate whether God will forgive what man has done to the Earth and reminisce about the likeability of Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
[Neil Young - “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”]
Marco Cartolano: So Elliot.
Elliot Kronsberg: “So Elliot,” what?
Marco: Elliot, what’d you describe this film as to me when we walked out?
Elliot: Ok, so it’s basically like Paul Schrader took the plot to Bergman’s Winter Light, and he used the lead character from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. And then he threw in an ample helping of Taxi Driver, especially towards the end. As our main character gets more pissed off, he becomes a lot like Travis Bickle actually. I expected him to start talking to his reflection in the mirror at one point.
Marco: Al right, so this is Fresh Films. We’re a podcast devoted to reviewing new films that have come out in Evanston. I’m Marco Cartolano.
Marcus Galeano: I’m Marcus Galeano.
Elliot: I’m Elliot Kronsberg.
Marco: Today we’re going to be reviewing the new Paul Schrader film, First Reformed. Paul Schrader, famous first as a screenwriter for Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ. He’s also directed a few of his own films, like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Blue Collar...
Elliot: American Gigolo.
Elliot: The Canyons.
Marco: So Paul Schrader is a screenwriter and director known for focusing on solitary men at the brink of crisis, and that tradition is very prevalent in First Reformed. First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller. He’s in charge of this really small reformed church in upstate New York that was once a stop on the underground railroad but is now a pretty small dying church with a ten-person congregation. The only way it’s running is because a bigger church, run by a character played by Cedric the Entertainer is funding it.
Elliot: And Ethan Hawke’s character, Toller, he’s kind of down on his luck and Cedric the Entertainer’s character has given him a shot to just, basically maintain this little church and give sermons once a week. He doesn’t really seem to have connections outside the church, the only people we see him talking to are Cedric the Entertainer’s character, the choir director, and then some of his parishioners.
Marcus: One of whom is played by Amanda Seyfried who plays a pregnant woman with a husband that is an extremist environmental activist, and when he starts to become a bit suicidal, she seeks the counsel of Reverend Toller to come to him, to guide him and dig him out of this emotional hole. However, he is unsuccessful and the environmentalist husband kills himself. This in turn sends Toller into another wave of despair and he begins to go down a dark path.
Elliot: This is taken directly from Winter Light. You’ve got the young couple and the wife asks the reverend to talk to the husband. The husband is pessimistic about the future in Winter Light, he’s afraid of nuclear annihilation, in this he’s afraid of environmental, ecological disaster, and it leads us into this idea of radical environmentalism that drives the second half of the film. Because, basically Toller takes up the mantle of the husband and decides that he’s going to fight for the environment. He sees it almost as a religious issue instead of sitting back and letting the world be destroyed only for God to come on Judgement Day and fix everything, he thinks that humans should be trying to repair the world, and fighting against multinational corporations polluting the Earth.
Marcus: This is a messy movie, let’s be real here.
Elliot: I mean it’s messy, but I just loved it so much I was sitting there, I mean it’s so influenced by these mid 20th century films – Diary of a Country Priest was ‘51, Winter Light is like ‘62 to ‘63...
Marcus: There’s also a lot of Taxi Driver in there.
Elliot: Taxi Driver’s ‘76...
Marcus: So much Taxi Driver.
Elliot: And I don’t know. It’s trying to tackle very 21st century ideas in a very 20th century, almost like New Hollywood, kind of way.
Marcus: I did appreciate that for what it’s worth, but I got a lot of problems with the pacing I got a lot of problems with muddiness of theme.
Marco: We also have to note that Toller starts this journal as a weird way of collecting his thoughts as a way to try to reignite his faith. He’s drinking a lot, he’s going through some physical issues, some health issues as well as the mental toll of what’s going on around him. It’s also almost the 250th anniversary of the church’s…
Marco: And there’s going to be a big event with all these big, important people…
Elliot: ...And it’s sponsored by this guy, Ed Balq, who’s got a paper manufacturing company.
Marco: This film isn’t subtle.
Eliot: Oh, I just love it so much.
Marco: Moving on from the plot, I think this film wants to get across the theme that there is a lot of corrupting forces in this world that’s hurting us internally and externally. The environment is a clear metaphor for that. There’s also the contrast of this big mega-church that we slowly learn is not entirely morally upright contrasted with the small church that doesn’t have a lot of congregants but has this important role in abolitionist history. So, there’s a lot of really clear focus on the thematic element of encroaching evil that is decaying both Ethan Hawke’s character as well as the world, the faith in general.
Elliot: Moving on to acting, I think Ethan Hawke does a pre tty good job. I’m not a huge Ethan Hawke fan, but he’s able to play the role of this kind of mopey pastor while not hamming up to the camera. I think in a movie that’s not at all subtle, his performance is probably the most normal. Because you have Amanda Seyfried, who just seems to be unaware of everything, “Oh, I didn’t know my husband was planning to blow himself up around a bunch of big energy people. Oh, I’m just going to come to your church in the middle of the night and will you do this weird thing?”
Marcus: Yeah, what the hell was that about by the way? Was that like a sexual thing cause it looked sexual the way they framed it initially, but then...
Elliot: The way they framed it it looked sexual but I think it was almost meditative. I mean there was definitely a sexual element to their relationship, you know he’s divorced. He lost a child.
Marco: He feels a lot of guilt about any romantic relationship whatsoever.
Marcus: That’s true, yeah.
Elliot: And then you have this woman and her husband just killed himself, she’s pregnant and he’s her only ally, and she’s really into the church. She even says so, and I think that’s kind of what we get in the weird, meditative, Terrence Malicky kind of scene. There’s also the ending, but I don’t really know what to say about the ending because I’m not sure how exactly it works. The one person I really enjoyed was Cedric the Entertainer. It’s interesting to see him in a more dramatic role because he’s not exactly the villain of the film, but he’s definitely this antagonistic force, he represents…
Marcus: Really, there’s a somewhat antagonistic edge to him by proxy of being subject to the whims of this corporation, but I think on a level he does care about Ethan Hawke and he is trying to help him.
Elliot: Oh he definitely cares about Ethan Hawke, but I just think that he represents all the things that Ethan Hawke is struggling against . He’s the megachurch with like a million staff members, he’s beholden to Ed Balq, he is doubting Ethan Hawke’s ability to carry on.
Marco: He has no interest in actual social activism.
Marcus: That’s fair.
Marco: So, going on to the more technical aspects of the film, while it is under two hours long, it’s very slow and deliberate
Marcus: It’s really slow. It’s extremely slow.
Marco: You mentioned that the shot length was around twenty or so seconds...
Elliot: It would be like a really long shot and when there’s some kind of change, the shot would change, you don’t have the shot-reverse-shot conversations. You see a lot of two person conversations in these two shots or even a wide shot.
Marco: It’s in a 4:3 aspect ratio too.
Elliot: It is.
Marco: So the lighting in this film, I really liked as well. There were scenes when he was alone in his dimly lit room an the lighting just hits his body and the table, but the rest is darker and it’s just very powerful shots. The scenes where he’s in his bathroom and it’s just the single light bulb lighting the shot,it gives it this very dirty feel that I like and the shots around early morning, I think, with this really purplish lighting are just really powerful and evocative for me.
Marcus: I do like the cinematography in this film quite a bit. The cinematography looks beautiful and conveys a lot of thematic information, that part I appreciate, but it does at times make the film anchor a bit.
[Iris DeMent - “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”]
Elliot: Alright let’s start with our final thoughts, Marco you wanna go first?
Marco: So, I am not well versed in Paul Schrader’s filmography as a writer or as a director, nor am I as well versed in the films he apparently references in this movie, but I think that this movie is a very deliberate, but very powerful piece about the state of the world in the 21st century, its effect on the human psyche and how people should respond to that feeling. It’s interesting too, it’s really well shot. Ethan Hawke gives a great performance, all the actors give great performances. It’s very meaningful and I would recommend it.
Elliot: What about you Marcus?
Marcus: I’m a bit conflicted but I still am going with the positive side of it. The acting from pretty much everyone is fantastic, Ethan Hawke probably gives his best performance, same with Amanda Seyfried and I would assume Cedric the Entertainer. Like I said, the lighting and the cinematography are beautiful. The big problem for me is pacing, the length of shots makes the film drag quite a bit, and I don’t think it really goes off the deep end until a little bit too late. There’s been a lot of comparisons to Taxi Driver, and the thing about Taxi Driver and what makes that such a watchable film is that while we’re watching the degradation of this character, there’s so many more things to occupy us: There’s Bernard Hermann’s wonderful score, there’s the color, the visuals, the beautiful way the city is shot and really renders out the saturation of the inner ugliness therein. But with this one, there’s not as much to draw your eye or ear and that becomes a problem for me. So, I don’t know. I want to recommend this film but by the same hand, I don’t know how many people are going to enjoy it, that’s my piece. Elliot, what did you think?
Elliot: I loved this film a lot. I had just seen Winter Light and Diary of a Country Priest in the last month, so immediately I recognized those two aspects. I guess I was just in the right mood for this film, I’m not a huge Ethan Hawke fan and in this, even though he gives a great performance, Reverend Toller is no Travis Bickle. You don’t really know what’s going on and why it’s going on. Environmentalism is conflated with religious faith and observance, they ask a million times – “Will God Forgive Us?” But I think the performances are good, especially Cedric the Entertainer, I’ve never really seen him in a more dramatic role. Amanda Seyfried is her usual eyes wide open kind of shocked at everything going on around her. The cinematography is consistently beautiful, not in like an awe-inspiring Emmanuel Lubezki kind of way but I think in the framing, in the movement, when there is movement. But, I very much recommend this film, I would maybe suggest seeing Diary of a Country Priest, Winter Light, Taxi Driver, of course before you see this because I think it makes you appreciate it much more. So this has been Fresh Films, from NBN audio. You can find us online in the audio section of NorthbyNorthwestern.com, or on Apple Podcasts. If you like us, go ahead and subscribe. I’m Elliot Kronsberg.
Marcus: I’m Marcus Galeano.
Marco: I’m Marco Cartolano.
Elliot: See ya.
[Foggy Mountain Boys - “Are You Washed in the Blood?”]