Understated in its approach, yet explosive in the mind, First Reformed is both haunting and powerful.
Writing about First Reformed, the latest film from Taxi Driver and Raging Bull scribe Paul Schrader, is somewhat challenging. This is not to say that the film is not good, nor holds much merit to discuss, far from it. Rather First Reformed bears a tangible, yet simultaneously intangible aura, something so mysterious and mesmerising that one cannot help but be drawn in by the film. The quality lies in the margins and simplicities, so rich that to try and divulge into what makes First Reformed arguably among the year’s finest pieces is hard to do.
The crisis of faith film is no new concept, it reaches far into cinema history, both domestically and internationally. In this regard, First Reformed may not be anything unique. It centres on Ethan Hawke’s Toller, a priest working in a small New York state congregation, who is tormented by his past and is challenged in the present after one member of his church, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to counsel her radical environmentalist husband.
Hawke has long been an actor so perfectly in tune with what makes a performance powerful in its simple human nature, his work with Richard Linklater shows as much and is a match made in heaven. First Reformed sees him perfectly cast in another such role. He carries the grace and kindliness of a priest, encapsulating the necessary genuineness required for such a profession, his pleasantries are gentle and measured. Yet Toller’s gradual development carries this gentleness still, perfectly balancing it alongside the film’s heightened intensity and its descent into darkness. Hawke begins to slowly escalate his performance, the agitation and frustration of Toller bubbling beneath the calm facade he must bear, as his crisis of faith begins to worsen. Toller, in turn, becomes one of the most fascinating on-screen characters of the year, and Hawke gives one of his finest performances to date.
Fortunately, he is surrounded by other strong actors. Amanda Seyfried gives a quiet, yet moving performance, her relationship with Toller becomes thoroughly believable as she displays solid chemistry with Hawke. As her husband Michael, Philip Ettinger gives a stirring performance that has a significant, resonant impact on the film, much like Mahershala Ali’s supporting turn in Moonlight; even when Ettinger is not on screen, his presence is felt. Not bad for a virtual unknown. Like Seyfried, Cedric Kyles as Toller’s regional boss, Pastor Jeffers, gives a more muted performance. His scenes with Hawke feel very natural and offer a cathartic experience for Toller, their clashes over faith and religion are engrossing.
Schrader, despite also directing a number of films, is still best known as the screenwriter for several Martin Scorsese classics. His penmanship here elevates First Reformed immeasurably. A number of scenes consist of one to one discussions between characters and the film relies heavily on its dialogue. The words at hand maintain the realness of everyday conversation, but also extend into a deeper discussion of God, the world, life, what it all means and how it all ties together. Yet it avoids falling into a pretentious rumination of philosophy; whilst the religious aspects of the film unavoidably dwell on the true meaning of the concept, not once does Schrader’s screenplay feel heavy handed or ostentatious. The actors bring his words to life perfectly, the numerous aforementioned simple conversations are among the film’s strongest aspects. First Reformed does not rely on intensive, explosive dialogue like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, nor does it pack the spark of a Quentin Tarantino interchange. Instead, it brings power and weight in its simplicity and low key approach, helping to craft a thoroughly absorbing film in the process.
Whilst First Reformed does take a more understated approach, make no mistake about it, this is a mighty film with some truly striking imagery and some utterly jaw dropping character moments. For all its simplicity, First Reformed ravages the mind and challenges the viewer as much as Toller himself feels challenged. By the end, you are left humbled and shaken by what you have witnessed. Ethan Hawke is triumphant and Paul Schrader has us eating from the palm of his hand, First Reformed will floor you.
First Reformed (2018), directed by Paul Schrader, played as a special presentation at the 2018 Sundance London Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on July 13th, distributed by A24, certificate 15.