UK Release Date: 13th July 2018
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston
Synopsis: A reverend suffering a crisis of faith becomes aware of the world of environmental activism and eco-terrorism, posing even bigger questions for himself and his church.
There are few filmmakers working today who are as cine-literate as Paul Schrader. The man best known for writing Taxi Driver started his career as a film critic in the 1960s and 70s before moving to the other side of the silver screen. His latest movie is First Reformed, which is an examination of faith that feels like a classical work of cinema, from its boxy Academy ratio to its white on black credits at the beginning of the film. I almost expected the word ‘Fin’ to show up at the end. However, despite its classical trappings, this is a movie of modern issues with a fierce political heart.
That conscience orbits around the central figure of Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) – a former military chaplain working at the oldest church in Albany County, NY. He is suffering a crisis of faith and his keeping a daily journal in an attempt to fill the gap created by his inability to pray. Pregnant congregation member Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Toller to talk to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael has recently been released from prison, where he was incarcerated for radical environmental activism, who is struggling with the idea of bringing a baby into a world seemingly committed to destroying itself.
Schrader’s storytelling in First Reformed is as patient and contemplative as his protagonist. This is a movie depicting a gradual change of ideas rather than any huge epiphany, as Hawke becomes increasingly separate from his religion and is drawn into the concerns of the environmentalist movement. An elegant contrast is drawn between the traditional Christianity of Hawke’s 250-year-old church and the glossy modernity of Abundant Life – its much larger parent establishment, which is partially funded by an energy industry businessman, embodying the very destruction of the environment against which Ettinger’s tortured character is fighting.
Hawke’s central performance is stunning, in a role that fits his style like a glove. He’s more of a character actor than a leading man, but that suits Toller to perfection. He’s in almost every frame of the movie without ever being a dominating presence and, in fact, he’s a decidedly passive character for the first two acts of the film. This is a man who has built his life around his willingness to listen and has been worn down by the demands of his faith, coupled with the isolation of serving a tiny congregation in a historic “tourist church”, in which he spends as much time directing people to the gift shop as he does preaching the word of God.
In a similar way to Martin Scorsese‘s divisive Silence, First Reformed is a story that follows devout religious voices forced to consider that their way might not be the best way. Hawke is faced with an establishment that seems blind to environmental concerns, which become stronger for him as he forms deeper relationships with Seyfried’s concerned wife and Ettinger’s paranoid activist, who seems permanently on the edge of doing something drastic.
Schrader brilliantly crafts a growing sense of dread throughout First Reformed, amplified by Hawke’s performance, which subtly becomes more defeated and withdrawn as the story progresses. It all culminates in a final act that is a masterclass of tension, peppered with quasi-fantastical moments that are genuinely enchanting and powerful in depicting Hawke’s character as he threatens to completely unravel. First Reformed is both a theological treatise, a nod towards environmentalism and an intimate character study, focused on a man caught between all of those debates.
This is a masterful drama. It’s constantly aware of its thematic concerns, but also entirely focused on telling the story of its character. Schrader’s unshowy direction and visual style enhances the feeling of isolation and abandonment that motivates Hawke’s slide away from the establishment and his enigmatic final scene recalls the is-it-real climax of Taxi Driver. As someone who was never particularly enamoured with that film, this is finally the movie that has made me stand up and take notice of Paul Schrader as a potent filmmaking force.
Pop or Poop?
Years after the near-universally disliked The Canyons, Paul Schrader is back with First Reformed – a tremendous movie that delivers on his cinephile credentials. It’s a visual homage to the films of the past, while also serving as a potent treatise on the political and social issues of today.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of the best performances of his career and flourishes of fantasy build to a conclusion that asks plenty of questions in amidst its intensity.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.