Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Van Hansis, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger
Director: Paul Schrader
Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Paul Schrader has nothing left to prove, and yet he's been trying to atone for his sins (aesthetic, personal, spiritual) ever since his screenplay for Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic Taxi Driver put him on the map. His career has been scattershot; with the writing trifecta of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ representing the height of his powers. 1999's Bringing Out the Dead should also be mentioned as part of the Scorsese collaboration canon, though it's far less revered. If late period directing efforts like the Bret Easton Ellis penned The Canyons and genre toss off Dog Eat Dog were Schrader's nod toward exploitation sleaze, then First Reformed emerges as his rather blatant Robert Bresson/Carl Theodor Dreyer/Yasujirō Ozu homage. This is all intentional, of course, since Schrader has never been afraid of announcing his influences; (he wrote a book about this very thing after all, titled Transcendental Style In Film). However, it's much easier for cinephiles and the critical elite to praise that iconic Taxi Driver screenplay or the poetic ambition of 1985's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters than the low-rent (charms?) of The Canyons or even the sensual camp horror of 1982's Cat People.
With First Reformed, Schrader has made something which uses these influences as the basic foundation, but then eventually allows for idiosyncratic touches to break the mold. There's the geometric framing of subjects and their environments invoking Ozu, the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio reminiscent of Dreyer (particularly The Passion of Joan of Arc), the static framing wherein the camera rarely, if ever, moves; an obvious nod to Bresson. However, every so often Schrader deviates from this aesthetic--an odd camera movement here, a hint of surrealism there--which purposefully stands out, jolting the audience into active participation. It's a film obsessed with the themes and motifs Schrader has been investigating his entire career; using the "God's lonely man" template in order to riff on modern radicalism, ecology, and suffering as a call to arms. Opening with a slow dolly pushing in on a white Dutch Reform Church in upstate New York, First Reformed seems to be announcing itself as serious slow cinema. The delight and surprise of Schrader's film, though, is just how tonally audacious it becomes; morphing from dead-eyed debates about religion and environmentalism into darkly comedic sequences of self-destruction and secular/spiritual euphoria.
The film centers on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a middle-aged pastor in charge of the antiquated First Reformed chapel, which acts as a kind of tourist stop en route to Abundant Life, the megachurch down the street led by charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). Toller is a man isolated; his faith torn, his internal psyche shattered. We learn that his son died in the Iraq War, and that his quiet demeanor and friendly smile betray deep-seated anxieties. Jeffers, who is overseeing First Reformed's 250th anniversary re-consecration, seems to trust Toller only as much as he can keep him in line, considering a dubious climate denier CEO (Michael Gaston) is helping finance the ceremony. Toller is skeptical; especially after meeting pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her mentally unstable husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a man who turns out to be a radical environmentalist.
Toller's conversations with Michael cause him to deeply question the ways in which the religious community have denied the destruction wrought upon the planet, leading to a sense of self-doubt and finally, obsessive mania. As played by Hawke in the best performance of his career, Toller is a man unhealthily trapped inside his own thoughts; choosing to write his daily ruminations into a journal (mirroring the narrative strategy of Taxi Driver), while pissing blood and drinking himself into oblivion. Instead of relying on his boyishness, Hawke allows the wrinkles on his face and the grey in his hair to communicate how the aging process--coupled with internal/spiritual turmoil--can systematically break down body and mind. It's a great performance; subtle, heartbreaking, and simmering with rage which may, if provoked, rise to the surface.
Halfway through First Reformed, a horrific incident occurs, which turns Toller from a passive observer into a politicized believer. In a way, Toller's rebirth is similar to what happened to Schrader himself. Raised in a strict Calvinist home, Schrader eventually discovered the transcendental foreign cinema of Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, et al. For him, it was akin to a religious conversion. For Toller, the sins of man against the environment are a microcosm of their vile apathy writ large. Those profiting and engaging in such sins must be punished and atone. Like Travis Bickle, Toller believes himself to be some kind of avenging angel. When his his ex-wife, Esther (Victoria Hill), who leads the megachurch's choir, reaches out to him out of genuine care and concern, Toller's rebuke of her is somehow just as brutal as Bickle's brothel killing spree. Here is a man lost and flailing; and yet we empathize with him because there's a human longing for the world to make sense, to be governed by moral order, to have purpose.
First Reformed, despite its slow cinema pedigree, is gripping stuff-- intellectually dense, surprisingly funny, and aesthetically daring-- culminating in a finale where Schrader completely abandons the rules and goes for broke. The camera swirls, the music blares, and the audience sits slack-jawed in the throes of cinematic rapture. Is the ending hopeful? Blasphemous? A fever dream? Has Toller found fulfillment by embracing his suffering? Such questions abound after the screen goes black, but one thing is certain; First Reformed is a stone cold masterwork.