Director: Paul Schrader
Length: 1hr 53m
First Reformed is a step away from Paul Schrader’s recent directorial work, in the best way possible. Instead of thrillers like Dog Eat Dog or Dying of the Light, it feels as though Schrader has returned to what made him initially so great, with this film garnering comparisons to his screenwriting for Taxi Driver. The result is what will probably be one of the best films of the year.
The film is, first and foremost, a character study on the protagonist Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), who runs a dwindling historical church which has become more of a souvenir shop than a religious centre. He meets a woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who asks him to council her husband, a radical environmental activist who presents a morbid view of the world. He asks, ‘Will God forgive us?’ for the irreversible harm we’re doing to his earth. These thoughts soon drive Toller to have a crisis of faith in which we see him struggle more and more as time passes, with the refrain ‘Will God forgive us?’ being repeated like a mantra.
Everything about the way First Reformed is made is done near perfectly. The cinematography consists mainly of static, symmetrical shots, with the symmetry being heightened by the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, giving way to a multitude of stunning shots and a distinct ‘old-timey’ aesthetic. The performance from Ethan Hawke perfectly captures a man torn between his religion and his morality and is arguably one of the best he’s ever given. The music is sparse aside from a dark ambient drone which is only heard in the second half of the film in scenes where Toller is in the peak of his disturbed thought. This choice really propelled the tension and eeriness and complemented Toller’s deterioration.
However, for me, the shining point of First Reformed is in the writing. While the pacing is slow it allows for you to see how Toller’s character develops; you can pinpoint the moment certain thoughts enter his mind and you can see the way they manifest and build. This all culminates into an experience which manages to adeptly ask the viewer a huge number of important questions concerning humanity, our priorities, and how religion has changed in the modern world.
The only part that I feel could draw criticism is the ending. There’s this overwhelming feeling that the film is building up to something catastrophic, and whilst some imagery in the final scene is undoubtedly disturbing, it’s the most polarising ending I’ve seen in a while. Whilst I can understand why some people would love it, I personally felt like it was a slight anti-climax; I left feeling like I wanted more from it. To its credit, it left me thinking long after the film had ended, and it wasn’t nearly enough to ruin the film.
All in all, First Reformed is a masterfully crafted film, and a great return to form for Schrader. It’s a film that’s unflinchingly morose and sticks with you a long time after it’s finished.