First Reformed ★★½

A film built on various contradictions and oppositions: an austere, barely-populated church straight out of Bergman yoked to the behemoth prosperity gospel institution of Abundant Life; a son (Joseph, "the dreamer") sacrificed in "a war without moral justification" and a 'son' (Philip Ettinger's Michael) lost in the moral quandary of a decaying earth ("Will God forgive us?"); a Märta figure à la Winter Light (Victoria Hill's Esther) seen as a constant reminder of earthly inadequacy, placed against Amanda Seyfried's Mary, with child, who offers a brief flash of liberation (a wintry bicycle ride in which the sky itself seems to warp within a matrix of barren trees). Even more, there's an ascetic, religious focus merged with pulp-leaning extremity, like the image of sludgy Pepto-Bismol swirling into the clear amber of whiskey—a cosmic image rendered as such in a flight culled from Tarkovsky. And indeed, the final scene—poised between hope and despair, as the early exchange between Toller and Michael suggests—is the most lucid, forceful contradiction of all: not just a fusion of penitence and grace in a single gesture (captured by a swoony circling camera movement that evokes a kind of purgatorial suspension), but also an articulation of what it would mean to continue living in "blackness" with the knowledge of certain destruction (the "real rain" of Taxi Driver conflated with the Biblical flood, fire to follow) when one has already accepted salvation—i.e. the question of suicide (the subject of The Devil, Probably) and hence the fearsome power of that abrupt cut to black into which the spectral rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" echoes.

And yet, the film's fundamental impression is of single-minded, suffocating portent. Like Silence, to pick another widely acclaimed, wildly ambitious American film about a crisis of faith—might as well torch my credibility all at once, right?—the film feels crippled by its intensely studied presentation. As in American Gigolo, there's a narrowness to Schrader's cinematic approach that both dulls the film's physicality and stymies its moments of transcendence, so the overall impact remains almost exclusively intellectual; it's so relentlessly worked through that it feels, paradoxically, scrubbed of genuine insight. (The Canyons feels like a successful experiment in large part because the extra-text feels liberating rather than limiting.) Even Toller's harrowing penultimate act Schrader can't help but preemptively annotate with a frozen squirrel caught in barbed wire. (The sole exception: Hawke's guttural, anguished scream which, like Lustmord's droning score, seems escaped from some alternate abyssal dimension.) For the most part, Schrader seems content to gesture towards various antecedents without ever embodying their distinct qualities or fusing them into a consistent, phenomenologically inhabitable whole, so e.g. Winter Light's elemental focus or Diary of a Country Priest's spiritual torment registers, here, more as a mélange of hollow signifiers; any sense of inner life is overwhelmed by top-down, thematically unimpeachable intellectual rigor. But First Reformed really is impressively composed in that regard—it moves from steady, planimetric framings to canted angles and increasingly frenzied spatial ruptures—not just as an ascetic excavation of faith, but also as a too-rare exploration of the modern American church. A tourist leaves First Reformed with a souvenir cap ("one size fits all"), while another feels obligated to "tip" the minister; a pointedly multi-racial group of school-kids peer into the lingering remnants of the Underground Railroad by the sanctuary's front pew; a typical youth group discussion quickly slips into extremist rhetoric; an American flag flutters against the backdrop of an overgrown graveyard. No church in the wild, after all.

Offers much to think about, clearly, and certainly bears the marks of its convictions. That said, can a film be both perfectly constructed and largely uninvolving? Doesn't really seem like a contradiction, though it does leave me conflicted in terms of what I've apparently come to value (or not) in cinema. (But maybe a second viewing will convince me otherwise.) And apropos of nothing, still can't believe Schrader's "Tarkovsky Ring" is an actual, earnestly-intended critical object.