Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:
A reverend to a small country church preaches to a sparse population. He intones seriously, but there seems to be a distance there. After the service, a young pregnant woman comes to him and asks him to talk to her husband, who is beset by apocalyptic visions. After the reverend talks to the young man, he goes off into the woods and shoots himself in the head with a rifle.
That is the first half or so of both Winter Light by Ingmar Bergman and First Reformed by Paul Schrader. I had no idea that the connections were there when I started watching First Reformed less than a week after seeing Winter Light for the first time in 15 years, but what a marvelous coincidence.
Schrader has said that Bergman was an influence on him while making this movie, and it is obvious beyond the plotting of the movie. He filmed in full screen, eschewing any wide screen formats like Bergman did. The movie is steady and slow, focused on the characters as they debate issues back and forth. Where Schrader makes the material more of his own is mainly through the differences between Tomas, the priest in Bergman’s film, and Ernst, Schrader’s creation.
Tomas was concerned with his personal connection to God, but Ernst, instead of listening to the apocalyptic concerns of his congregant placidly like it means nothing, absorbs the lessons that his congregant espouses, becoming as much an advocate for revolutionary action regarding climate change as the congregant was. He begins the movie saying the same generically religious things to everyone, but all of the young people (including members of a youth group who feel cultural pressure to conform to a secular society) fight back rhetorically. The comforting words of God seem to hold no sway over them, and, over time, they hold no sway over Ernst. He dovetails into desiring radical action.
The movie is filled with great images, at the center of which is the First Reformed church itself. A relic from the earliest years of the Republic, it’s affectionately (or derisively) called the Souvenir Shop by the locals (we even see Ernst hocking some souvenirs to some tourists at one point). We can see how Ernst, intentionally isolated by both himself and by his superior (a very good Cedric the Entertainer) could begin to feel isolated against the world, and how he would need to fill that void within him with anything. God doesn’t speak to him, but Ernst thinks he sees the signs through the troubled man who took his own life.
Paul Schrader was always a better writer than director. His work with Scorsese led to Scorsese’s career, essentially, but Schrader’s films ranged from interesting to quite good. Here he raises the bar on his own work into a level of greatness that he couldn’t meet before. His combination of thriller (Ernst really does feel like a cousin to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver), religious concerns, and general strong writing come together to form his best film. It’s as challenging as a Bergman, but with those distinctly American touches that make it far more than just an imitation.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4