First Reformed

[Spoilers below]

With First Reformed, Paul Schrader moulds his lifelong influences – Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – into a film that resembles theirs in many ways, but is an entirely personal project. Veteran Ernst Toller (a terrific Ethan Hawke) lost his son in the Iraq War and was down in the dumps. Abundant Life, a corporatized megachurch in Albany, decided to give him a break by appointing as the reverend at the eponymous church in a small town in New York State. The church is of historical significance, but is mostly a tourist spot surviving by the grace of Abundant Life. As preparations are on for the 250th anniversary celebrations, Toller is requested by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to talk to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a militant eco-activist despondent over climate change. In an arresting conversation, which he compares to Jacob’s tussle with the angel, Toller turns out ill-equipped to console Michael, who doesn’t want Mary to have their baby. When he thwarts Michael’s plans for a suicide attack, presumably against a locally-headquartered, super-polluting corporate behemoth, Balq, Michael commits suicide. The reverend gives Michael a service that includes a protest song, a gesture that doesn’t go well with Abundant Life or its sponsor Balq. Disappointed with the Church’s blissful inaction towards pressing questions of our times, Toller finds himself filling the dead man’s shoes in several ways and experiences a crisis of faith of his own. Alcoholic and suffering from cancer, he decides to continue Michael’s mission.

The Gordian knot at the heart of Toller’s spiritual crisis, it appears, is the incompatibility between two world views, between the Church’s teaching of courageous acceptance and the global consciousness of the young people the reverend encounters. When Michael despairs about bringing a child into a world that’s heading towards disaster, Toller has no convincing answer; he asks Michael to choose courage over reason in face of uncertainty. It’s an appeal for resignation that Toller himself gets from Pastor Jeffers: it may be that the destruction of the world is part of God’s plan. That advice is not just an absolution of individual responsibility, it’s a falsification of one’s spiritual turmoil – the same kind of emotional violence that positivists wreak on people claiming to have experienced religious transport. What elevates Toller’s crisis of faith above a notional concept and gives it a particular force is that it’s rooted in the character’s personal history. Toller’s disillusionment with the Church’s tendency to reduce political issues to an abstract question of providence stems from his own guilt of not having questioned his faith in abstractions like patriotism. That his son was killed in Iraq is a political tragedy, not simply a personal misfortune as the Church would have it.

Michael’s response to his despair is calculated political violence. When Toller takes the explosives away from Michael’s garage, he also takes his life purpose away, turning the violence inward and killing Michael. Toller’s response to his crisis is identical. He comes in the line of Schrader loners, present in every scene of the film, trying to work through their anguish by acting on the world around. Toller’s spiritual sickness feeds on and into his physical sickness. He tries to give meaning to his impending death and cherry-picks ideas from the Bible to justify his turn to extremism, just as Jeffers cherry-picks to justify status quo. To preserve is to participate in creation, he writes, and thus to do God’s work. And to preserve, you have to sometimes destroy. When his bombing plan is hindered, Toller wraps himself with barbed wire and tries to drink drain-cleaning acid. Mary stops him, they embrace each other in a coupling of love and death as the camera roves around them to end the film. Ultimately agnostic, Schrader’s film cannot claim to provide a solution to the dilemma, only a momentary suspension.

The Franciscan austerity of First Reformed derives from an acute film-awareness. Right from its 1.37:1 aspect ratio (same as that of Winter Light) and its old-style cursive credits, the film announces itself as the inheritor of a cinema that Schrader described as transcendental. There is, specifically, a Bressonian vein in the choice of having a priest maintain a diary, his solemn voiceover, the opening shot of the church and the style of editing. The major part of the film unfolds between two Sundays, but the film doesn’t give provide any explicit markers. Sparsely furnished, with a large living room containing a sole, inexplicable chair, Toller’s Ordet-inspired quarters as well as Mary’s house are products of a theatrical mise en scène, a possible one-act play in which the character paces around the stage and monologues to the audience. Scenes transition from master shot to close-ups sparingly, which renders the latter more effective. A shot of Toller pinned in his seat holding a coffee cup drives home his agitation all the more directly. The tight, fixed-camera shot of the reverend and Mary on bicycle is Ozuvian in its liberative simplicity. Toller himself is an extremely self-aware character, analytical about his own feelings and cognizant of the vanity of his diary-keeping project. He compares writing to praying and, in his torment, Schrader recognizes the spiritual quandary of an era.

mother!

Another film with religious overtones, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! couldn’t be more different from Schrader’s sober film, what with its unabashed formal and thematic excesses. It showboats from the opening shot where Lawrence’s bloody face stares at the viewer against a burning backdrop. A writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live in their isolated bungalow surrounded by vegetation. The building, the writer’s childhood home, was burnt down in a fire and the woman is rebuilding it entirely from memory. Her husband is experiencing a writer’s block and is growing aloof from her. When a suspicious fan (Ed Harris) comes into their house, he senses inspiration and invites him to stay over. The following day, the guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) moves in and one of their sons murders the other in the bungalow. The writer lets the mourning take place at his house, making way for the encroachment of dozens of obnoxious friends. When he finally finishes his play, it becomes a success and a horde of fans invades his house, destroys his property, and kills his baby, the writer welcoming all of it. The woman remains a helpless witness to the disintegration of her own life. Aronofsky’s film shifts from psychological horror to outright camp by the time it ends. The transformation is deliberate and is intended to sever the film from wan realism.

Aronofsky’s film is of a piece with The Wrestler and Black Swan, but with one crucial change: the narrative perspective is no more that of the artist figure, but of the woman he lives with. This tempers the overarching narcissism of the earlier films and turns the gaze back on to the artist, whose self-love now becomes a problem, the main problem. The artist here is a needy, vampiric god, sucking all the love and attention from his environment. The filmmaker is entirely critical of Bardem’s writer, to the point that he becomes a caricature, a pawn in sway to the adulation of his fans. Aronofsky’s sympathy is instead with Lawrence’s character. She is a caregiver, a homemaker maintaining the house and nurturing their child. Her dedication is met with indifference, the writer preferring to be left alone or recognized by others. Pfeiffer’s character grills her about her love life and insults her for not having a child. Ed Harris calls her a pretty face. Most direct and effective among the many allegories mother! accommodates is that of the universal mother itself.

The value of mother!, however, resides less in the interpretations it yields, which are no doubt numerous, than in the unrelenting atmosphere it creates that doesn’t allow the viewer a moment’s breather. There is perhaps a streak of sadism in dragging a character through an endless series of distressing situations which she has no power to tackle. This, of course, is a horror movie trope, the last girl who has to go through hell to come out alive. Aronofsky’s success lies in how closely he binds the viewer’s perception to that of the character. His characteristic, ever-moving camera is always fixed on Lawrence and from up close; the viewer is hardly allowed a glimpse of her surroundings before she is. This claustrophobic locking down of the viewer amplifies the horror and the suspense tenfold. Adding to this is the accentuated sound design that magnifies ambient noise to a point of threat. There are low frequency hums at certain points, but there’s no real musical score – a lack that’s barely noticeable.

Aronofsky can direct the hell out of a scene and if mother! provokes extreme reactions, it’s less because of its raw material than the way the filmmaker has turned it into a bludgeon that assaults the viewer from the get-go. He threads one gratuitous, strong image over another, one potent sound choice over another to effect a sensory overload. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique draw their visual cues from Andrew Wyeth as much from Tarkovsky, Malick or Hitchcock. It’s all one steady, monotonic build-up till the apocalypse at the end. Every time Lawrence’s character has a chance to intervene or get a word in, there’s an interruption – a fit of cough, the phone ringing, the stove going off – that pulls her back on the everyday treadmill. She’s always cleaning the house, fixing stuff, trying in vain to prevent its inevitable collapse. In this respect, she’s a reincarnation of the Deneuve character from Repulsion as much as she recalls Rosemary. The house is her sanctuary and its violation constitutes a rape. She is destroyed by the film’s end and replaced by another woman. The film’s campiness veers into noxious territory at times, but Aronofsky must be given the props for hyperbolizing as full-blown cinematic horror what is otherwise low-key everyday horror.