Praised as a return to form for filmmaker Paul Schrader and a career-best showcase for Ethan Hawke, the drama First Reformed is a thought-provoking (if imperfect) meditation on assorted crises of faith. Hope and despair are the two warring states of emotion here, exposing characters’ constant struggles against the entwined losses of loved ones and, thanks to global warming, the natural beauty of our planet. Schrader, who will almost certainly be nominated for the Best Original Screenplay, occasionally makes heavy-handed missteps in articulating his environmental concerns – anyone who seen the film’s “Magical Mystery Tour” sequence has an idea of what I mean, though they may not share my reaction – but the strength of the acting, the dialogue (including voiceovers) that conveys the inner turmoil of Hawke’s Reverend Toller and the superb cinematography by Alexander Dynan make First Reformed one of the must-see films of the year.
Named for a politically active German Jewish playwright from the 1920s and 30s, the Rev. Ernst Toller of Schrader’s film is yet another of God’s lonely men, a solitary figure who embraces warm conversations when given the opportunity yet rejects help from those who would share more intimate expressions of love and kindness with him. Living in a few sparsely-decorated rooms attached to the humble Dutch Reformed church that he presides over in rural upstate New York, this is a man mired in regret and grief for the son who died as a soldier in Iraq, the tragedy of which caused his marriage to dissolve. Unable to cope with his pain, Toller has turned to the bottle for solace. His alcoholism has in turn caused his body to fall apart as surely as his soul, internal ailments that are eventually mirrored by the external conflict that will also trouble him.
At the beginning of the film, Toller is called on by a local woman, Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), to council her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, a promising up-and-comer whom I first noticed in last year’s Brawl in Cell Block 99), an environmental activist who is filled with doubt and frustration over humankind’s self-destruction, compounded by the corporate greed that no amount of peaceful protest seems able to stop. Toller slowly comes around to Michael’s line of thinking – the core of which is the simple yet potent question “will God forgive us?” – and Michael’s actions and influence spur Toller to take steps of his own against power structures, chiefly the megachurch run by a gregarious acquaintance, Rev. Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, wonderfully cast against type) and a nearby factory’s contemptible CEO, Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), whose money is funding the renovation of Toller’s church for its upcoming 250th anniversary.
Paul Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing evidently inspired his decision to write First Reformed as much as climate change did, but the lingering traces of his cinematic muses are visible throughout the film as well. Schrader’s first breakthrough as a critic and historian came with the publication of his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and I certainly recognized the impact that Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light had on First Reformed while watching it. As I have also noted with regard to Schrader’s remake of Cat People, his understanding of visual composition is masterful; the images in First Reformed by the aforementioned DP Alexander Dynan are magnificent, not just because of the color palette and camera angles/framing but because of Paul Schrader’s command of mise-en-scène. In this film, empty spaces are as important and symbolic as the arrangements of objects, a physical representation of Reverend Toller’s emotional isolation and the hollowness of his cloistered life. I also appreciate the director’s overt allusions to Taxi Driver, apparent in Toller’s daily journaling of his obsessive thoughts, as well as a scene when Toller drives through his desolate town at night and, most literally, in a moment when he pours some Pepto-Bismol into a glass of liquor à la Travis Bickle’s bubbling Alka-Seltzer tab (itself an homage to Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her).
First Reformed’s ending has proved itself to be divisive, and I’m not convinced that it was the optimal way to bring the story to a close, but in truth I respected it more when I heard Paul Schrader’s take on moviegoers’ two possible interpretations of the final scene during the post-film Q&A (the screening I attended was at the Museum of Modern Art, where both Schrader and Hawke spoke). I stand by my distaste for some of the film’s clunkier “We Are the World”-isms, and I also thought Amanda Seyfried was perhaps not the best casting choice for Mary – yes, that name is as symbolic as you imagine – but my problem with the latter is not so much with Seyfried’s acting (since I enjoy her work in general) as with the dull lines that Schrader wrote for her. Still, if First Reformed is viewed fundamentally as a display for Ethan Hawke, who is guaranteed a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his sensitive, nuanced and multilayered performance, then it is indeed a great cinematic success. Ever since he was a teenager in Dead Poets Society, Hawke has shown a remarkable ability to illustrate the coexistence of vulnerability and fortitude, and he continues to uncover new ways to demonstrate this tender balancing act with intelligence and grace.