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‘First Reformed’: 5 Ways Paul Schrader’s Hit Exemplifies the Best in Indie Film

The drama starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried is smart, debatable, entertaining, and refuses to pander. It also could get some prizes.

"First Reformed"

“First Reformed”

Film critic Dave Kehr is now a curator in the film department of the Museum of Modern Art, but in 2011 he published a reviews collection, “When Movies Mattered.” It mostly covered movies of the ’70s and ’80s, years that saw film and criticism elevated to more serious consideration. I have been thinking of his book with A24’s release of Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed.” Now in its third weekend, it’s passed the $1 million mark in just 91 theaters.

That’s promising, but it’s not the gross that interests me most. What’s compelling is the combination of critical attention and theatrical response, which represents a victory for the increasingly endangered world of specialized film.

“First Reformed”

Photo Courtesy of Arclight Films

Here’s are are some reasons why the film could mean so much more than a modest box-office success.

It doesn’t fit the mold of what gets made, or what gets audience attention.

“First Reformed” is the story of a Calvinist clergyman whose parish is more of a museum than a thriving congregation, and who faces a crisis of faith as his church approaches its 250th anniversary. Like the church at its center, “First Reformed” is serious, purposeful, and decidedly not trendy; it feels completely out of time in its approach and filmmaking.

Specialized film faces an aging audience, competition from the edgy programming on streaming and cable venues, and overdependence on awards season. Films that succeed tend to fall within a narrow range: documentaries of famous figures, a plethora of titles with senior characters, adaptations of familiar novels, and a handful of name directors.

What is missing much of the year are films with a classical style and an authoritative voice; from an earlier time, these were films like “Atlantic City,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Moonlighting,” and “To Sleep With Anger.” They captured their moments with distinctive characters and unsettling storylines that generated intellectual and emotional responses. They wouldn’t lend themselves to the reductive analysis of Rotten Tomatoes or Twitter feeds.

There are still many distributors who would love to be involved with such films, but they also need to see evidence of a receptive audience.

It challenges audience beliefs.

Great art is often uncomfortable, as it make audiences question assumptions, get different viewpoints, or even squirm. Often specialized film is pat and conventional, even while taking on worthy themes. Oscar winners like “A Fantastic Woman,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” were arthouse successes with clear agendas, designed to engender specific audience responses.

“First Reformed” is more complex. A clergyman facing a crisis of faith is a challenge in itself: The specialized audience is religiously diverse, including many who reject any affiliation. Then we see the troubled minister align with progressive causes … and choices that are both noble and repellent. It’s not a movie that allows for easy answers.

The film has inspired debate and discussion: Some reject the fantasy sequence near the end, or find its climax unconvincing. That’s a triumph in its own right: Schrader left room for debate, and viewers are taking him up on it.

“First Reformed”

It proudly appeals to a narrower audience.

Movie financing usually demands ticking multiple boxes: themes, stars, plot elements, anticipated demands of film festivals. In my weekly box-office analyses, I see how the top platform openings are meant to prove a film could exponentially expand to 1,000 or more theaters. That goal tends to lead to films that either target a specific niche, or have hooks that appeal to wider audiences. Both can mean compromise.

We often talk about once-mainstream movies that are now unthinkable. This also applies to arthouse films: A legacy of the Weinstein era was identifying small movies that contained mainstream potential. That also blurred lines, giving rise to that undying question, “What is an independent film?” while inadvertently diminishing worthy films that were never, ever made to go wide.

That paradigm has left arthouse theaters with a painful side effect: They see lesser grosses while the most popular films play more theaters. If “First Reformed” can maintain long-term play at core theaters, it could prompt distributor interest in pursuing films with an intense but more limited appeal.

While it’s highly literate, “First Reformed” doesn’t demand deep film literacy.

It builds on two classics: the oft-cited “Diary of a Country Priest” from Schrader hero Robert Bresson, but even more so Ingmar Bergman’s early ’60s “Winter Light.” However, Schrader’s film doesn’t need audiences to be familiar with either. It’s easy to make facile homages to well-known films and get credit for being film smart. Borrowing tropes and styles is hardly new; Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino, among others, have done this throughout their careers. But Schrader not only takes a more scholarly approach (he just rereleased his film book “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer,” which he wrote in 1972), he also succeeds on the level of his more-successful peers in crafting a film that entertains.

Amanda Seyfried in First Reformed

“First Reformed”

It could stick around for awards season.

Late-summer festival films sometimes get acquired for quick turnaround releases and awards consideration; in recent years, “I, Tonya” and “Still Alice” won acting Oscars that way. But it is nice to see a film with some real awards possibilities — its reviews are strong enough for Best Picture, acting chances, certainly screenplay or possibly even director — that make a splash outside that whirlpool.

As an awards strategy, a late-spring release is risky: Even a winning film can pile up major marketing costs that make it unprofitable. However, it also faces less competition and has a better chance to find an audience. But apart from high-end reviews buttressing its chances, here’s another hook that could help it down the line: Schrader has never received an Oscar nomination. (Surprised? I was.) He was not nominated for his “Taxi Driver” screenplay (which provided his only Writers Guild nod), nor for “Raging Bull.” None for the films he has directed as well as written (although “Affliction” won best Actor for James Coburn in 1999, with a nomination for Nick Nolte). The Academy is more than aware of Schrader’s achievements in his 44-year career; this would be a great time to give him that recognition.

And if this May release finds a warm reception February 24, 2019, that would encourage more release-date risks in scheduling award-oriented titles. All that said: How “First Reformed” plays over the next few weeks will also have an impact. That still matters.

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