First Reformed and the Art of Withholding

Article, February 2019, Film, Sound and Silence

“Because the human being is able to speak, the ability to be silent is an art, and a great art precisely because this advantage of his so easily tempts him.” – Søren Kierkegaard

Wind howls incessantly. Birds chirp and crow in dialogue. Trees continuously creak. Slowly the camera advances, gazing upward toward a small white protestant church. This is how Paul Schrader opens his latest film First Reformed.

A story of unrelenting despair, First Reformed was among the most chilling and challenging films I saw last year. The themes of the movie span hope and depression, the sacred and the mundane. Shrader’s film indicts the condition of the modern church, its corporate structures, its political affiliations, and its disregard for the natural environment. But at its heart First Reformed is about one person struggling to see God in a valley of darkness.

 The challenge of First Reformed isn’t only in its narrative but also in its style. The director refrains from nearly all conventions of popular cinema. Its pacing is slow. The dialogue is dry. The colors are cold. Even the aspect ratio is atypically constrained–the common widescreen rectangle shape is shaved almost into a square. Everyday noises are exaggerated, made inescapable. Musical scoring is sparsely inserted, and oppressive when present. Each of these techniques, withholding what the viewer has learned to expect, is a tool, designed to provoke a spiritual experience.

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Shrader explicitly made First Reformed in Transcendental Style–a style of film which the director himself defined as a 24-year-old UCLA graduate student. Building upon a knowledge of theological aesthetics he gained at Calvin College, combined with his UCLA film school education, Schrader authored the book Transcendental Style in Film in 1971. He described a bridge of style between his “scared past” at Calvin College and his “profane present” studying film at UCLA. He defined this spiritual style in contrast to movies like The Ten Commandments or the more recent God’s Not Dead series which have spiritual themes but follow the same stylistic formulas as any secular film.

Schrader’s seminal work of film theory identifies cinematic techniques which can bring the viewer to a state of spiritual meditation, and in the most effective cases transcendence. Films in this style faithfully emphasize experience over narrative. Where Avengers: Infinity War would add an explosion or a witty line, ensuring the viewer is never bored, First Reformed welcomes waiting, uncomfortable pauses, repetitive information, long shots simply to track an actor walking a short distance. 

Schrader borrows heavily from the French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Both directors keep the viewer constantly aware of the mundane. But their movies don’t strive towards realism. First Reformed and Diary of a Country Priest overemphasize the mundane, to reveal what Schrader terms a “disparity” between the protagonist’s spiritual struggles and the harsh indifference of his environment.

In First Reformed Schrader uses sound like a surgeon’s scalpel. He is precise. Never flashy. Doors squeak and rattle, footsteps and ticking clocks reverberate like metronomes, car engines rumble to start and stop, street noises are sharp and abrasive. The score, when it emerges, is an ominous moaning, calling attention to the obsession and delusion of martyrdom, the “sickness unto death,” beginning to possess the reverend. 

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that humanity’s greatest capability is our faculty of speech. But the fullness of our speaking ability is only realized when we keep silent. It’s only then that we have mastered ourselves. This same wisdom can be applied to films. The dramatic explosions and grand scores of Superhero blockbusters exhibit cinema’s spectacular capacity. Schrader demonstrates a master’s control over this ability. He douses us in the sounds of the everyday but never indulges.

The silence of nature, slow movements, and repetitious noise force us to be aware, to meditate, to look for meaning, to actively participate with the film. You can watch First Reformed and dislike it, even hate it. What you can’t do is watch it indifferently. The film unsettles us. It withholds what we want. In an age filled with noise, when our most impulsive desires can be instantly satisfied, First Reformed teaches us to wait, think, and listen. 


Joseph Reigle is an undergraduate at Cornell University, studying City and Regional Planning.

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