Influences on Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

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Sandra Kinahan discusses the influences on Paul Schrader's critically acclaimed film

 Please note that this article contains spoilers. 

The leader of a sparsely attended Dutch Reform church, Revered Toller (Ethan Hawke) is patient and dutiful by day. Meanwhile, he spends his evenings alone in his bedroom, mulling over the pains of a past life. Parish member Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks the Reverend to counsel her husband Michael, whose preoccupation with global warming has led to deep depression. Toller seems to catch Michael’s thinking like a cold, latching his own malaise on to the cause of radical environmentalism. Without quite finding happiness, he does find a sort of morbid state of grace as he discovers a fresh moral target for his despair.

This is a story which has, in varying forms, been told before - the wayward, wallowing preacher; the loner who finds himself the moral judge of his society. Paul Schrader doesn’t focus on the ‘never-been-done’, but weaves his own take on classic narratives, resulting in a career-defining film. Scriptwriting was Schrader’s entryway to filmmaking. His first solo writing credit was for Taxi Driver (Dir. Paul Schrader, 1976), but by this time he had established a career as a film critic. Schrader studied film theory, rather than filmmaking, at UCLA, and he has continually published works of criticism since. As a result, his films are intertextually linked - consciously and unconsciously - to the films he has studied.                             

“I started thinking of the films that worked in this way, and so you have a character from Diary of a Country Priest, and you have a premise from Winter Light, and you have the Tarkovsky element, you have the Dryer element… and what I didn’t realise… the enormous way you have Taxi Driver filtering in here”[1].

Schrader himself was raised in a strict Calvinist family. He spent most of his youth without access to television and didn’t nurture a love of movies until he was older. European cinema of the sixties was the first to make a serious impression on him. The owner of a porn theatre near the university held an Ingmar Bergman festival in an attempt to make some money from students[2].  Since then, Bergman has been one of Schrader’s biggest inspirations. The content of First Reformed nods heavily to Bergman’s Winter Light (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1963), in which a small parish priest loses hope after hearing of China’s plans to develop an atomic bomb. 

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In 1972, Schrader published a highly influential book, ‘Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer’. It analysed shared style elements between Yasujirō Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon, Tokyo Story), Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, Diary of a Country Priest), and Carl Theodore Dreyer (Ordet, The Passion of Joan of Arc). While making First Reformed, Schrader happened to be rewriting the book. “There’s a fertile period when you’re in pre-production, everything ends up in your movie”, he said, “you’re just one big petri dish”[3].

Schrader defines the first step of transcendental style as “the everyday: a meticulous representation of the dull, banal commonplaces of everyday living”[4], the idea being that simplicity creates opportunities for spiritual experiences. Minimalism is key - minimal colour, minimal extra-diegetic music (ie, no score), no editing that out-performs the movement of the eye. A meditative style allows us to see the inherent drama in ordinary events. Schrader noticed similarly meditative styles in the works of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer.

First Reformed was made with these principles in mind. Schrader limited the film’s aspect ratio to a square 1:37:1, so that characters would simply ‘walk out of frame’. He was obliged by a delivery requirement to use colour, but he made the film “as close to black and white as [he] could”[5]. It is likely Schrader wants to remind us of Ozu’s calculated use of colour, which he wrote “served only to emphasise [Ozu’s] asceticism”[6]First Reformed’s only music comes from its singing characters, such as the church choir who sing Neil Young’s environmental protest song ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up’ to bring emotion to Michael’s funeral. Other sounds come only from everyday things, like driving cars, conversations and snapping twigs, creating a sense of truly unaugmented reality. “When you start withholding things, people become a little uncomfortable…and out of that discomfort… you can start to weave another reality”[7].

 Schrader breaks this realism briefly with a highly stylised, completely fantastical, levitation scene. We watch from above as Reverend Toller and Mary float from his hallway over changing scenes of seas and mountains. An ode to Andrei Tarkovsky’s style, this scene suggests that the physical and spiritual realms could transcend at any moment.[8]

Finally, First Reformed has been heavily influenced by Schrader’s own, most famous, work, Taxi Driver. It seems he is most successful when he puts himself into his work. Taxi Driver follows a lone man who tortures himself over the failings of society and, ultimately, seeks redemption. As he told Nicolas Cage in a recent interview, Schrader “wrote Taxi Driver as a kind of therapy”. First Reformed uses this same redemption pattern that Schrader has become known for but contains the added personal touch of his religion.

 Schrader has included visual references to reward Taxi Driver fans, too - most notably, the Pepto-Bismol Toller pours into his whisky, which mirrors the close-up Alka-Seltzer shot in Taxi Driver (while also conjuring the sight of oil mixing with water). In the final scenes of First Reformed, we see Toller looking at himself in a mirror, wearing instead of holding his weapon, mentally committing to a violent act just as Travis Bickle did before him.

Despite all of this cinematic cross-pollination, Schrader does try his best to keep his inner critic out of the filmmaking process. He hopes in this way to retain some mystery and create films that raise more questions than answers. First Reformed poses unending questions, and will continue to be dissected for some time to come.

Sandra Kinahan 
Freelance writer

July 2018


1 Colburn, R. and Schrader, P. (2018). Paul Schrader on First Reformed, Transcendental Cinema, and Shooting in Academy Ratio. [online] Available at: [accessed 10 June 2018]

2 Cage, R. and Schrader, P. (2018). Paul Schrader Tells Nicolas Cage why First Reformed is his Masterpiece. [online] Available at: https://www.interviewmagazine.... [accessed 10 June 2018]

3 Colburn, R. and Schrader, P. (2018). Paul Schrader on First Reformed, Transcendental Cinema, and Shooting in Academy Ratio. [online] Available at: [accessed 10 June 2018]

4 Schrader, P. (1972) Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson. Dreyer Berkeley: University of California Press

5 Colburn, R. and Schrader, P. (2018). Paul Schrader on First Reformed, Transcendental Cinema, and Shooting in Academy Ratio. [online] Available at: [accessed 10 June 2018]

6 Schrader, P. (2016). On Yasujiro Ozu. [online] Available at:  [accessed 10 June 2018]

7 Colburn, R. and Schrader, P. (2018). Paul Schrader on First Reformed, Transcendental Cinema, and Shooting in Academy Ratio. [online] Available at: [accessed 10 June 2018]

8 Lincoln, K. (2018). Let’s Talk About the Ending of First Reformed. [online] Available at: [accessed 10 June 2018]

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