Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger
Paul Schrader has directed many films over the years and written many more, including Taxi Driver. Unquestionably the film he is most often praised for, Scorsese’s realisation of his screenplay, together with Robert De Niro’s iconic performance, locked it’s status as a cinematic classic. Whatever Schrader may have achieved in the interim, he will forever be ‘the Taxi Driver guy’ to a lot of people.
That script’s attuned eye to the outsider and the nature of internal combustion and descent shimmers again here in Schrader’s celebrated latest, First Reformed. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, who ministers to a dwindling congregation at a rural NY state church. Having suffered personal traumas a decade previously, Toller has largely withdrawn from the world and his faith has become coloured by a kind of bitterness. Unlike Travis Bickle, however, this bitterness is directed inward, potentially manifesting as sickness.
He is asked by one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). The couple are expecting, but Michael’s intense gloom over the prospects for the future of humanity have worried Mary, who senses that he wants her to have an abortion. Toller visits with Michael, and is touched and troubled by the man’s hopelessness and fears for the future of the planet. Soon after, Mary makes a discovery that suggests her husband has a plan to enact some form of violent protest.
The echoes of loneliness and the urge for vigilantism most fervently call upon memories of Taxi Driver and this seems quite deliberate on Schrader’s part, even to the extent that his former script’s fame might be used to mislead viewers of his latest work. First Reformed is no retread. It does, however, use some of the same tools to reflect on new concerns in our changing world.
Reverend Toller shares Michael’s worries over our catastrophic effect on the planet’s eco-system, and Schrader wastes no time in manifesting a glaring, cutting sermon on mankind’s culpability. First Reformed often feels like it’s coming from the pulpit of Schrader, rubbing our noses in the mess we’ve made. It’s heavyhanded, but that’s the point. Schrader’s view is that the time for delicacy is over. Diplomacy and patience haven’t worked. It’s time to rub people’s faces in it.
More politically, First Reformed also takes aim at smarmy corporate interests and their toxification of the church. Toller’s church is soon to celebrate its 250th anniversary in partnership with a local community outreach program sponsored by a renowned polluter. Their complicity sticks in Toller’s throat; his interactions with activists Michael and Mary awakening his own sense of righteous indignation. The stage is set for Toller to cause dramatic upset, maybe even resorting to martyrdom.
Heavy stuff, and Schrader bleaches his film of all colour and clutter, making it feel sparse and austere. First Reformed adheres to the old ‘Academy ratio’. 1.37:1 has a wonderful way of changing the feel of a picture all by itself. It creates a sense of reverence, as we associate it with the cinema of old, thus it feels classic. Toller’s living quarters are almost comically barren, but the same sense of sterility also exists in the churches we visit, which are conspicuously empty, and in the home of Mary and Michael. First Reformed repeatedly gives the suggestion that some element of life is missing by delivering us a succession of gaping frames.
The camera set-ups, too, feel judiciously considered. The film’s opening (like a reverse of The White Ribbon) slowly fades in from darkness, and the first few shots are delivered with exacting symmetry.
Fortunately, a great deal of humanity is breathed into the film by Hawke and Seyfried for whom First Reformed must count among their finest works. Both are underrated performers, generally speaking. Hawke’s naturalism, especially in the work of Richard Linklater, is so unassuming that he is taken for granted. This film shows why that shouldn’t be the case. And if his work is worthy of Best Lead Actor gongs, then Seyfried is as worthy of Best Supporting nods. The film is at its most alive when they share scenes. Theirs is a believable and understated friendship that quietly leads the picture to its most visually daring and expansive moment, one I won’t dare ruin here.
You’ll know it when it happens, though. Believe me.
First Reformed is a tough watch. There’s depression, alcoholism and a crisis of spirituality at its centre. This isn’t the stuff of light viewing. But it is a thoroughly impressive feature, right down to its jarring finale, which happily wrong-footed this viewer. I rewatched Eraserhead recently, and it reminded me strongly of the close of Lynch’s stark debut, make of that what you will. As to whether these final moments make for a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ending, that’s something Schrader seems eager for you to debate.
This film is an essay on dark and troubling self-assessment, and as such you ought to be prepared to do some homework after. Contemplation awaits.