First Reformed is a film from American screenwriter, film director and movie critic, Paul Schrader. You’ve probably never heard of him but he’s the guy who wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Affliction. A longtime Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Cage collaborator, Schrader has had a full film career of many shades slowing down at the turn of the millennium. Refocusing his career to become an auteur over a screenwriter, Schrader has delivered a film that almost encapsulates his whole career in First Reformed.
The small town drama mystery thriller centres on Reverend Toller, the minister of First Reformed church, who is derailed by his interactions with a married couple. Through a journal, we get an inside perspective on the minister’s thoughts and reflections on his words and actions. The basis of his journal is a mystery, which is slowly unfurled as time passes and snippets of his past surface. Echoing aspects from Taxi Driver, First Reformed isn’t the sleepy and offbeat little drama you’d imagine from the star and title. It’s a soul-stirring meditation on religion, the environment and life as one man’s core beliefs and faith is put to the test.
This is a character portrait of the highest order… allowing Ethan Hawke to deliver one of his best performances. The dependable and likable star is supported by Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles (better known as Cedric the Entertainer). Hawke walks the line or tightrope in this instance as onlookers question him, raise doubts and cause him to fumble. Trying to navigate morality from the perspective of a pastor, he’s battling his own past, trying to be a comfort to his people and facilitating an upcoming 250th celebration of his little museum church. Caught between his conviction, a dark secret and the corporate religious body who funds his work… Hawke manages to accurately reflect the dizzying and layered drama in response to its epic overarching themes.
“When you said staring contest…”
Schrader is not trying to debase the church but rather his lead character, whose human fragility becomes more apparent as pressure mounts. Schrader uses Toller’s platform as a makeshift pulpit to comment on our current despair and seeming apathy. Highlighting our collective unconsciousness toward environmental destruction, this global issue will resonate with all viewers. Continuing on his fiery trajectory, he sets the soapbox alight by venturing into the hypocrisy of “company” churches and corporate “responsibility”. Chastising sell out pastors through Kyles who honours an inspired casting decision, Schrader lifts the veil on corporate “goodwill” in a similar bent to Dark Waters and Planet of the Humans.
First Reformed is composed of brilliant dialogues, allowing Rev Toller to examine his own existence through the troubles around him. He grapples with his own demons, burdened by the bigger issues and desperately wanting to keep hope flickering against the dark of despair. Shrouding him in mystery, Toller becomes a conduit for an audience who essentially want to do good but are overwhelmed by their own shortcomings and feelings of futility and indifference. The undeniably bleak drama sounds portentous but has an ordinary feel as Toller goes about his day with typical meetings and appointments. Yet his spiritual journey is philosophical and epic building to the same soul-stirring heights of Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson.
Schrader’s film teeters on the brink of masterpiece. It’s a brave undertaking, echoing Taxi Driver and assuming many risks in the storytelling process. Everyday in one respect, it also operates at a far deeper level of restlessness. Much like religion, First Reformed wrestles with paradox, even using it to create a strange tension between real and unreal. There are moments of dark satire that are so slight they could be mistaken for being unintentional and others where he almost leaves us behind. Toying with hope and despair in every scene, First Reformed builds to a crescendo as one grand political statement seems imminent only to bathe in what very nearly becomes a movie ending to rival Wayne’s World. It’s a risky and purposefully unsatisfying final flourish designed to irk, haunt, frustrate and ultimately provoke thought.
Whatever your feelings, you cannot deny Schrader’s ability to captivate with an edgy, powerful, timely and soul-stirring character portrait underscored by one of Hawke’s greatest performances. You often forget you’re watching a film, so engaged by the carefully calibrated drama, silky edit and good pacing that you may even close your eyes when characters pray.
The bottom line: Bold