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Review: First Reformed

June 2, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

To watch First Reformed is to wrestle with the same questions that are plaguing the main character Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a tormented priest who is going through a profound crisis of faith, as he struggles to reconcile himself to the fact that human beings are desecrating the Earth, and wondering if God can ever forgive us for destroying His creation.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, who famously wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver over forty years ago, First Reformed is a stunning dramatic thriller that unfolds with simmering tension, and in many ways serves as a modern day response to that definitive 1976 classic.  Both films are seminal works of their time, and are centred around men unravelling, as they struggle to contain the darkness within themselves that emerges as a response to the evils of the world.

Reverend Toller is an ex-military chaplain, whose life and marriage unravelled after his son was killed in Iraq.  He runs a small Christian Calvinist Reformed Church in Upstate New York, but is struggling to keep it going with a dwindling congregation, as the historic church is now seen as more of a heritage site than an active parish.  But things take a turn when Toller is visited by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman who wants him to help counsel her depressed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist with extremist leanings who served prison time in Canada for protesting, and is reluctant to bring a child into this changing world.

During a striking dialogue-driven scene early on in the film, Michael talks solemnly but articulately and convincingly about the devastating impacts of climate change and what our planet could look like in 2050, and we can tell that Toller is internalizing it, like these words are giving voice to his own deep-rooted existential fears.  But when Mary makes a dark discovery, that raises alarm bells and calls into question Michael’s capacity for violence, Toller also finds himself being brought further away from the path of salvation, and becomes haunted by questions of self-sacrifice and whether the church is doing enough to address the issue of climate change.

The events of this first act send shockwaves through the rest of First Reformed, underscoring everything that follows with a sort of pressure cooker suspense.  It’s set against the backdrop of the First Reformed Church preparing for their 250th anniversary, with a celebration that is being largely spearheaded by the gregarious pastor (Cedric Kyles) of a corporatized megachurch that sits nearby.  But as the event inches closer, Reverend Toller becomes engulfed by an increasing sense of hopelessness.  He is not only faced with a fraying mental state that threatens to push him catastrophically over the edge, but also struggling to take control of his ailing physical health, with him urinating blood and turning to alcohol as a way to quell his increasingly severe stomach pain.

The comparisons to Taxi Driver are apparent throughout the film, and there are elements of Travis Bickle in Reverend Toller’s unravelling, starting with the fact that they are both veterans struggling to make sense of the world following their service.  But First Reformed also has shades of another film that Paul Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese; The Last Temptation of Christ.  There is a biblical element to how Toller is being tested, and I was reminded of Willem Dafoe’s brilliant portrayal of Jesus as a conflicted Son of God.  He is a man who is trying to carry the weight and suffering of the world on his shoulders, but becoming tempted by the darkness, not unlike Christ’s forty days in the desert.

This is a spiritually challenging work, yet the most interesting thing about Toller’s crisis of faith is that he is not so much going through a crisis of whether or not he believes in God, but rather struggling with the question of how God wants him to act in response to helping save the environment.  It’s set up in the opening scene that Toller has decided to keep a handwritten journal, and these entries provide voiceover for the film, like how Travis Bickle’s writings gave us the unforgettable narration in Taxi Driver.  The voiceover in First Reformed often feels like a desperate prayer or a cry out in the darkness, giving us a sense of the internal conversations that our protagonist is constantly having with God.

Drawing upon his own lifelong fascination with religious belief, Ethan Hawke delivers one of the best performances of his career here, brilliantly realizing Reverend Toller’s internal struggle between hope and despair.  Through his expressive blue eyes and the deep lines on his forehead, the actor is able to masterfully portray his character’s increasing depression and anxiety, as he tries to keep hidden the full extent of his physical and mental anguish.  Donning stately black clerical robes that give him an orderly appearance, and carrying himself with an air of stoicism, Toller’s constant internal struggle is revealed almost entirely through his facial expressions.  It’s a stunning performance.

Paul Schrader directs this all with a sure touch, crafting what is easily one of the most powerful works of his career.  The film owes a stylistic debt to European art house cinema, being heavily influenced by the work of masters like Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, and the choice to utilize a square aspect ratio was inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida.  But while the film has a multitude of recognizable cinematic influences, First Reformed is no mere pastiche, and also manages to feel both original and completely vital to this particular moment in America.

The film has an austere quality to it, unfolding with focus and precision, and not wasting a single frame or moment of its screen time.  There is a haunting sparseness to Alexander Dynan’s cinematography, with characters often framed in the centre of the screen, and the 4:3 aspect ratio giving them the feeling of being boxed in.  The sets are minimally decorated, giving an almost elegiac feel to the film.  The film doesn’t have a traditional musical score, yet it features several powerful uses of music, including the presence of a church choir that delivers haunting renditions of Neil Young’s environmental anthem “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” and Alan Jackson’s country hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood.”

While First Reformed functions as an introspective and deeply spiritual character study, it also works as a tense thriller that has been stripped down to the basics to offer a masterclass in crafting suspense with limited resources, built around a character who is being slowly pushed towards the breaking point.  The film builds with a sense of existential dread, unfolding with an atmosphere that is at once haunting and intense, and culminating in a breathless and stunningly pulled off final scene that takes on different meaning depending on if you interpret it literally or metaphorically.

This is a major work from Paul Schrader.  It’s a film that is as gripping as it is challenging, forcing us to wrestle with profound spiritual questions about what God wants from us and how far human beings should go to protect the environment.  We not only watch Reverend Toller struggle through this crisis of faith, but we become actively involved in it as well.  He’s a depressed man who is losing his trust in God, but he might still have a chance for salvation, and in the hands of Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke, watching him get taken on this journey becomes a transcendent experience.

First Reformed is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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