Paul Schrader – perhaps best known as the screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull– returns to the directors chair after a number of disappointing feature efforts, and ultimately proves that when crafting something personal and deeply mature, there is much talent left to share.
First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke (Before Sunset, In a Valley of Violence) as Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor of a small, historical church in upstate New York. Struggling to engage in prayer, he begins writing a diary in which he discloses his honest and raw thoughts; an outlet for his intimate inner-monologue. Disrupting his routine duties is the plea of Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young-pregnant woman who fears for her envrionmentalist husband’s (Philip Ettinger) growing concern for the planet’s gradual collapse. However, that which begins as counselling quickly morphs into something entirely foreboding, forcing Toller to confront his past, present, and the future of all things.
The film is an incredible achievement. Schrader’s approach to the material shows such skill, with every element of the production complimenting the other in dramatic harmony; likely to keep audiences uneasy for the entire duration of the film’s second-half. This is because the filmmaker keeps the viewer in anticipation of something truly dreadful, stuck with the anxiety that an inevitable disaster could occur at every turn. While this is indebted to the stunning central performance from Ethan Hawke, who delivers a withdrawn yet mountingly unhinged protagonist, it is also a result of Alexander Dynan’s cinematography. Static camera shots feel invasive; we are drawn into Toller’s privacy through a careful eye which remains stationary even when characters exit the frame, which makes the audience feel unnervingly unwelcome, as if camera movement at certain points would alarm the characters of our uninvited presence – perfect for the film’s morbid tone.
Toller says that the journal he writes gives him no peace, and this is certainly the case for the viewer. The voice-over detailing the pastor’s demons and afflictions as they are transferred onto the page are deeply troubling, as we are witnessing the crisis of a man of faith. He is apart of something large, however, exists in loneliness, coming to terms with oppressive guilt for the loss of his son Joseph in Iraq, of which he feels responsible. Mary’s arrival – and of course, there is symbolism found throughout the film – perhaps signals a second chance for Toller, to help the mother of a child, and to bring into the world which he feels he has taken away.
Themes of planetary meltdown, human neglect and evil are explored throughout the narrative, with supporting characters such as the assertive Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) and the cruel Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) providing opportunity for a series of engaging and enlightening exchanges. Over the course of Schrader’s story, Toller’s growing concern for the fate of God’s creation and our own inexcusable role in its devastation takes the film into the realm of the director’s previous work, that of Taxi Driver. A man being pushed to his very limits – both exmilitary – is dealt with here in a much more subdued and disquieting fashion, perhaps because in this story the villain isn’t so clear cut, hinging on moral dilemma rather than that of crime. Its concerns are vast, and there is a lot here to unpack, as it is the product of a filmmaker grappling with themes reinforced throughout cinema history, itself feeling classic in regards to the 1.37 aspect ratio. However, these ideas – although what one would expect from Schrader – are presented in a way that doesn’t conform to expectations, straying into surrealism and violence suddenly and effectively.
First Reformed concludes unsettlingly and ambiguously, leaving audiences to interpret the film’s final frames, which will differ depending on one’s own stance towards the film’s fundamental and insoluble arguments. This really is a striking and affecting film, and is without a doubt one of the best films of 2018 so far, which will no doubt reward multiple viewings and lingering consideration.