Published on June 1st, 2018 | by Dan Nicholls0
Writer and Director Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, courts controvery, as per usual, but this time, it does it in a quietly intelligent fashion.
Films about religion are often as troublesome as the subject matter they dare try to dissect. When has any honest discussion of spirituality ended with each and every angle satisfied? In many ways the new film First Reformed is indeed going to leave many viewers unhappy and could even piss off a chunk of its audience. But it is that audaciousness and that uncomfortable earnestness that elevates it to the ranks of greatness. First Reformed isn’t easy but it is one of the year’s absolute best films.
Writer/director Paul Schrader has released his most invigorating work in years with the story of a priest questioning the cracks in his own earthly existence. It’s a subversive twist that First Reformed essentially becomes an environmental cautionary tale but the film’s true power is derived from the singular steps its protagonist takes in his gradual ascension to profound self-discovery.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) leads a tiny congregation at First Reformed church in upstate New York. The majority of the region’s faithful have flocked to the commercialized, flashy Abundant Life – less a house of worship than a monetarily exploitative modern tourist trap where Christ is a commodity. Abundant Life’s Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyle, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer) treats Toller’s modesty with base kindness and barely concealed condescension. First Reformed is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and Jeffers wants to throw a celebration with the financial aid of local tycoon Edward Balq (Michael Gaston). Toller would rather keep his meager crowd in a quiet service but the pastoral politics of the area have twisted his arm otherwise.
The day-to-day fades out as background noise when Toller begins a journal chronicling his most difficult, maybe even sacrilegious, thoughts. The man’s also a closeted alcoholic and probably dying from stomach cancer. There are moments of unbearable pain that Toller endures but he finds absolution in conversations with Michael (Philip Ettinger), a depressed young environmental activist whose wife Mary (Amanda Seyfreid) is deeply concerned for his well-being. It’s this relationship that enthralls Toller and opens his eye to a new, higher purpose. For the first time in many years, life has opened a new door for him.
Many scenes in First Reformed play out in a series of center-shot close-ups as two or more characters engage in touchy conversation. Voice over narration from Toller flows in and out, bringing the audience into the words he scribbles in his journal. As his worldview pivots we’re completely immersed in the ride. The experience is fascinating and unpredictable. Themes of environmental neglect and corruption rear their prickly heads, as does Toller’s uncomfortable admissions of guilt and despair as he reflects on the death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage.
Little joy is found for Toller in life. He rejects the romantic advances of Abundant Life’s choir leader Esther (Victoria Hill) and ignores basic nutrition and self-care as he marches deeper down an existential hole leading him towards the same martyr mentality that Michael is consumed by. Questions abound but answers are in limited supply. How Toller decides to take the reigns and make a difference in the world is shocking and wholly staggering.
The conflict found in the “slice of life” moments are endlessly fascinating due in part to Ethan Hawke’s commitment to the work and his commandment of our attention. The underappreciated actor has only refined his craft with age and turns in one of his very best performances as the tormented Toller. It’s a masterful piece of acting and even if no one else in the movie is able to go toe-to-toe with him, they can be forgiven in the face of such a powerhouse. This is simply a showcase for Hawke, though kudos should be given to the low-key turn from the normally clowning Cedric Kyle.
Filmmaker Paul Schrader was seemingly put on this earth to court controversy as nary a single title in his oeuvre has been released without some force of a stormy public reception. Even his most celebrated work as the screenwriter of Taxi Driver remains, in many ways, just as much of a hot-button topic for discussion today as it did when it was initially released. Schrader’s work as a director almost always depicts uneasy excavation of dark human behavior, from the grimy sex addiction of Auto Focus to the self-obsessed L.A. denizens of The Canyons and the violent kidnappers of Dog Eat Dog. First Reformed is perhaps his most quietly inflammatory work yet; it slowly seeps its way through your pores and into your consciousness, sticking with you for days and burning you up at night.
As if the first hour and forty-five minutes weren’t enough, First Reformed writes its name in the history books with perhaps the most jarring cut to black in recent memory. It leaves you confounded and convinced that the story isn’t over, that there has to be some tidy resolution to send you off with. It’s not dissimilar to the final episode of The Sopranos in that regard, though Toller’s in a far more tormented state than Tony was when he was ordering those onion rings. But great art doesn’t answer questions – it raises them. First Reformed is cinema of the highest order.