Paul Schrader’s priests and transcendental style: from Dominion to First Reformed

Can the writer-director’s analysis of Robert Bresson’s work and his much maligned entry in the Exorcist franchise help us to understand his latest thriller?

Gillian Horvat
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Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller in First Reformed

Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller in First Reformed

You are watching a Paul Schrader movie. It’s about a troubled man of faith, played by an Oscar-winning actor with a worn, handsome face. He finds himself physically unable to pray any more, his travails exacerbated by a shocking gun-to-the-head suicide in the middle of the film. In the midst of this existential tumult, a beautiful young woman is in love with him. He kisses her at the end in his clerical robes. You are watching Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist (2005).

Nearly two decades before Schrader directed his latest film on the subject of religion, First Reformed, a critical smash since its Venice premiere and a commercial hit with arthouse audiences, he experimented with some of the same thematic elements and mise-en-scène in his contribution to the erratic (but always bold) Exorcist franchise. William Friedkin’s 1973 original is considered the classic, but its headspinning antics have been parodied so many times – even by Linda Blair herself in Comedy Central afternoon movie mainstay Repossessed – that it’s the sequels and prequels that feel fresh in comparison. John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) may be best remembered for Blair’s camp tap-dancing sequence (terrifying in its own right), but Richard Burton’s Father Lamont, seduced by the Devil’s miraculous powers and undeniable presence, as opposed to God’s subtler existence-by-inference, is a modern and authentic character fit to stand with the original Father Merrin and Father Karras.

Richard Burton as Father Lamont (left) in Exorcist II: The Heretic

Richard Burton as Father Lamont (left) in Exorcist II: The Heretic

Mini-major studio Morgan Creek picked up the Exorcist property in the late 1980s and commissioned a new sequel from William Peter Blatty, the screenwriter of Blake Edward’s comedies who wrote the original Exorcist novel. The first half hour of Blatty’s Exorcist III (1990) is the worst un-aired sitcom in history, but he rigorously fills in plot holes posed by Father Karras’s resurrection, and Brad Dourif’s vulnerable demoniacal performance includes one of the most spellbinding monologues of horror film history. In the end, Morgan Creek interfered with Blatty’s cut, and the film was a box-office and fan disappointment.

In the early 2000s Morgan Creek attempted another instalment in the Exorcist franchise, this time a prequel set during Father Merrin’s time in Africa after the Second World War, scripted by Terminator 2 screenwriter William Wisher Jr. and novelist Caleb Carr, to be directed by John Frankenheimer, who later pulled out due to ill health. Schrader took over, intrigued by the script’s psychological, rather than gory, approach to the material.

Legendary DP Vittorio Storaro (1900, Apocalypse Now) signed on to shoot and Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) was to be the composer. Interiors were built at Cinecitta in Rome, across the lot from Mel Gibson’s sets for The Passion of the Christ, and Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård stepped into the Max von Sydow role of Father Merrin. Schrader delivered a rough cut to Morgan Creek who, in Dave Kehr’s words, were “reportedly disappointed to find that Paul Schrader had made a Paul Schrader movie”.

The Exorcist III (1990)

The Exorcist III (1990)

Morgan Creek’s solution was to remake the prequel with Finnish action director Renny Harlin at the helm. Watching Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning back to back with Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist is a surreal experience and, as Kehr has remarked, a lesson in auteur theory. The characters are the same, but some of the actors are different. The sets are the same, but different people die. The story is nearly the same, but in Schrader’s film fewer things happen than in Harlin’s film, where things happen but then don’t matter.

Morgan Creek threw $50 million more in for the new version, on top of Schrader’s $30 million budget, only to have Harlin’s film make back less than half its outlay in wide release. In an unprecedented move, Morgan Creek decided to finish Schrader’s rough cut in a Hail Mary attempt to recoup some of its investment. Schrader was given $35,000 to complete all of the post; it’s evident from the finished product that the studio couldn’t afford to have Storaro return to colour the final cut. Morgan Creek’s distributed Dominion to 110 screens, about five per cent of the size of Harlin’s release, and then shunted it out on DVD. Despite its technical flaws, the Schrader version is authentically his film and provides a fascinating insight into ideas about faith that he would later develop in First Reformed.

Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin (right) in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

Stellan Skarsgård as Father Merrin (right) in Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

Many critics and cinephiles are familiar with Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style on Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, recently reprinted by UC Press. In his introduction Schrader distinguishes Transcendental Style from films about religious subject matter: it’s a matter of form versus content. Building on Robert Bresson’s declaration that “The subject of a film is only a pretext. Form much more than content touches a viewer and elevates him,” Schrader defines Transcendental Style as “seek[ing] to maximise the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality”, “styliz[ing] reality by eliminating (or nearly eliminating) those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience, thereby robbing the conventional interpretations of reality of their relevance and power.” (All the quotes that follow are from Schrader’s book.)

His chapter on Bresson, the most relevant to the films discussed here, delineates techniques of Transcendental Style visible in both Dominion and First Reformed: disparity, decisive action, and finally stasis. The term Schrader chooses to describe the uncanny, uncomfortable feeling that pervades 95 per cent of the Bressonian runtime, disparity “injects a ‘human density’ into the unfeeling everyday, an unnatural density which grows and grows until, at the moment of decisive action, it reveals itself to be a spiritual density”.

First Reformed is filled with deliciously odd moments where one feels Schrader holding his audience at arm’s length: the frontal shots of the megachurch teen choir singing insipidly, the mortifying bit when Ethan Hawke’s distracted Father Toller spills soup on a homeless man, but most of all the scene where pregnant parishioner Mary balances her belly on Toller’s prostrate body, sending them on an out-of-body journey over the Earth and space. I could feel the Los Angeles arthouse audience I saw the film with resisting that sequence, perfectly fulfilling the purpose of disparity to build distance and irony between the screen and the audience until “the moment of decisive action”. Similar moments in Dominion are also provoked by the special effects, like the unholy CGI hyenas that haunt the church Father Merrin is excavating and the wacky aurora borealis that occurs in the climax, which looks like a chroma key weather map.

Clara Bellar as Rachel Lesno in Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

Clara Bellar as Rachel Lesno in Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

In this unnerved state, the audience is ripe for catharsis when the decisive action occurs. “The decisive action is an incredible event… The prescript rules of everyday fall away; there is a blast of music, an overt symbol, and an open call for emotion. The act demands commitment by the viewer (the central character has already committed himself), and without commitment there can be no stasis.”

In First Reformed there are several decisive moments in succession, although the last is the most important. After spending the film up to that point paralysed by a lack of faith in God’s plan, Father Toller decides on martyrdom and violence, only to change his mind at the unexpected appearance of Mary in the blast zone. Turning inward, he mortifies himself in a circle of barbed wire under his Geneva gown. He pours bleach into a whiskey tumbler but before he can drink, Mary enters his chambers.

Amanda Seyfried as Mary in First Reformed

Amanda Seyfried as Mary in First Reformed

Although her appearance at the church and now at the rectory seem to be a deterministic, fateful twist, in fact her love for him is pure Grace. She says his Christian name for the first time in the film, Ernst, and in naming him she sees him and saves him. Their passionate embrace, frozen together although the camera is in orbit around them until the very end, is the moment of stasis, “represent[ing] the ‘new’ world in which the spiritual and the physical can coexist, still in tension and unresolved, but as part of a larger scheme in which all phenomena are more or less expressive of a larger reality – the Transcendent.”

Dominion’s decisive moment is of course, the exorcism, but before we analyse that with our Transcendental rubric let’s examine how Schrader depicts his Father Merrin. Though Merrin was played by Swedish performers Stellan Skarsgård and Max von Sydow (who stars in one of First Reformed’s two key influences, Winter Light), Dominion reveals Merrin is actually Dutch. Cinephiles familiar with Schrader’s biography will inevitably interpret that as a nod to Schrader’s Dutch background and training for the Calvinist seminary, or, as the sect is known in North America, the Christian Reformed Church. Another biographical allusion is carried over from Exorcist II, Merrin sharing his avocation as a palaeontologist with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. (Teilhard’s cosmological and scientific understanding of the universe also evokes parallels with Father Toller’s environmentally grounded spiritual ontology.)

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005)

In both Dominion and First Reformed the viewer is struck by Schrader’s framing of men of faith as men of action. During the commentary on the DVD, Schrader mentions Skarsgård’s Merrin as having a John Wayne-like gait, a reference he repeats, describing the final shot of the film showing Merrin walking away into the dust with the rosary like a gun in his hand. The church buried under the desert in Dominion is consecrated in the name of Saint Michael the Archangel, traditionally depicted wielding a sword and leading God’s armies against the forces of evil.

Michael is also the name of the ecoterrorist parishioner who radicalises Father Toller to transform himself into a warrior of Christ. This befits Toller’s background as a Gulf War vet and Virginia Military Institute grad. However, Toller refuses the path of violence and chooses Mary’s love brought to him by divine Grace. We do not take this to mean that Toller is giving up his commitment to environmental justice, rather that his sense of purpose in this life has been strengthened.

First Reformed (2017)

First Reformed (2017)

One last allusion I mention because despite being tenuous, it is apt to the point of startling. Despite being a minister of the Reformed Church, Toller’s earthly idol is the Trappist (Catholic) monk Thomas Merton. The only books in his parsonage are Merton’s, and Toller’s boss, the Reverend Jeffers, disparages what he sees as Toller’s perceived self-comparison with the poetry-writing recluse of Kentucky.

This confusion on Jeffers’ part is more indicative of the ignorance of his character rather than the truth about Merton, a tireless author of more than 60 books during his lifetime and countless poems and articles, as well as a bold social activist for the causes of nuclear disarmament and world peace during the Cold War. Admittedly it is Toller’s arc to become less monk-like and more Merton-like throughout the film, transforming from a copy of the Curé in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, down to the stomach cancer and sense of alienation from his parishioners, into a politicised would-be martyr. Although Toller’s issue is specifically the protection of nature as God’s creation, his ideology overlaps significantly with Toller, who once wrote, “Violence today is white-collar violence, the systematically organised bureaucratic and technological destruction of man.” (Italics are Merton’s.)

First Reformed (2017)

First Reformed (2017)

The Reverend Jeffers insists to Toller that the Church does not take a position on the ecological appetite of capitalism and that its duties are to people, not things. He advocates a passive, palliative position and a beatifically marginalised role for ministers. But Merton speaks Toller’s anxious thoughts and his moral need to be of use when he says “What is needed now is the Christian who manifests the truth of the Gospel in social action, with or without explanation,” and elsewhere, “If we continue to yield to theoretically irresistible determinism and to vague ‘historic forces’ without striving to resist and control them… we face something more than the material evil of universal destruction. We face moral responsibility for global suicide. Much more than that, we are going to find ourselves gradually moving into a situation in which we are practically compelled by the ‘logic of circumstances’ deliberately to choose the course that leads to destruction.” It’s hard to believe he’s not talking about global warming, but Merton had been dead for nearly a decade before scientists first described the phenomenon.

(Does it seem like I lost the thread about that last allusion? When Merton was in his 50s he fell in love with a nurse he met while he was hospitalised with a back injury. In Dominion Father Merrin also develops feelings for a nurse, which he consummates with a passionate kiss when she’s under the influence of the demon Pazuzu. Coincidence? To the devout there is no such thing.)

Bellar and Skarsgård in Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

Bellar and Skarsgård in Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

Back at the exorcism, Dominion’s ‘decisive moment’, Father Merrin is inside St. Michael’s trying to rid a teenage boy inhabited by the aforementioned Pazuzu, voiced by Schrader’s wife, Mary Beth Hurt. Surrounding them are gorgeous, violent mosaics of Byzantine iconography that Schrader argues are essential to Bresson’s frontal, ‘hieratic’ aesthetic. Pazuzu tries to seduce Merrin into damnation, urging Merrin to rid himself of his guilt about an atrocity he was helpless to prevent during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Pazuzu is right. There’s nothing he could have done, but Merrin rejects this form of ‘self care’. He embraces his guilt as his cross to bear and it restores his faith. Able to pray once more he “beats the devil,” Schrader says, “through ritual, through belief, through repetition… the traditional Christian position”. In its orthodoxy and doctrinaire rigour this climax is the opposite of the ending of First Reformed; Merrin’s bloodless victory over Pazuzu reads as staid and disappointingly loyal to the entrenched Exorcist mythology. But then the Demon jumps inside a CGI hyena… and you remember you’re watching a Paul Schrader movie. Thank God.

 

In the August 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

Faithful servant

First Reformed, the tale of an angry Christian pastor’s crisis of faith, brings Paul Schrader’s career as critic, screenwriter and director full circle, drawing together a lifelong fascination with questions of spirituality with his obsession with tormented loners. By Philip Concannon.

 

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