At the very center of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is the inherent conflict between hope and despair. Is it naive to hope for humanity’s future, or necessary despite the catastrophic certainty awaiting it? With humorlessly bleak lines such as “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope”, it would be easy to anticipate it being an exhaustively dark film, but that isn’t the case at all.
Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, a man fundamentally broken by self-hatred and guilt, and only barely succeeding at hiding it. The film opens with Toller’s narration- he is beginning a journal for one year before destroying it. Why he decides this to do this is unclear, but his daily diary entries function as a window into his stream of consciousness, and the ugly emotions that have buried themselves there.
Shortly after, a pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) urges Toller to speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a deeply distraught environmentalist who doesn’t want his future child to witness what he feels is the imminent collapse of civilization. It’s here, in Toller’s discussion with Michael and its lingering aftermath, where First Reformed reveals itself as a film about the duality of hope and despair. With Toller as the mediator between Mary’s unwavering hope and Michael’s corresponding despair, the audience is asked the ominous philosophical question, “Will God forgive us?”.
This notion of losing hope is extended to every aspect of the film, from sound to cinematography. Characters wander in and out of the square and mostly static 1.37:1 frame, instilling a sense of cold indifference to its starkly color-drained world. The film has a quietly apocalyptic air about it at times, as if mankind is on the very brink of crumbling. The absence of nondiegetic sound (barring some sparse dark ambience sprinkled in for texture) leaves us with the unshakable sensation that this is a place that God has long since abandoned.
It cannot be overstated enough how profoundly stunning Ethan Hawke is in this film. This is perhaps Hawke’s darkest career turn yet, and he is positively chilling as a man on the verge of imploding. Each and every incident of mankind’s inherent wickedness that he witnesses rots his soul down to his bones, until he’s reduced to a snarling state of feral misanthropy. This type of character, hell-bent on their own self-destruction, is somewhat of an archetype of Schrader’s, but it’s spellbinding nevertheless to watch Hawke play it so hauntingly.
Amanda Seyfried is less convincing. In some scenes, the chemistry between her and Hawke arouses doubt, perhaps from her inability to match Hawke as an actor. She does have some sweet and genuine moments scattered throughout, however, and they do largely make up for any prior shortcomings in her acting.
What’s fascinating about First Reformed is that it is quite probably the closest A24 has dared into distributing a pure art film. Schrader himself states that the work was heavily inspired by that of Bergman, Bresson, and Tarkovsky, three masters of transcendental cinema. It’s easy to see the tremendous impact this trio of influences had on First Reformed, combining the cold existentialism of Bergman with the minimalism of Bresson and the spirituality of Tarkovsky. It’s more than a homage, however, as Schrader takes the transcendental tradition from these directors and applies it to his own downwardly spiraling character arc.
The film isn’t particularly plot-driven either, instead taking ample time to swim around Reverend Toller’s life and meditate on his weakening faith in humanity and God. Its pacing and framing are respectively slow and articulate, and riveting sequences of magical surrealism are injected throughout; there’s one scene in particular that harkens back to an iconic image of Tarkovsky’s filmography.
Thematically, First Reformed takes a hardened existential look at humanity’s self destructive tendencies through the lens of environmentalism. In many ways, Toller acts as a window for the audience to question their own knowledge of the subject. When he is introduced to Michael’s gloomy view of humanity, the film challenges the fundamental ideas of God, religion, and mankind’s acceptance of both.
The film especially confronts the cognitive dissonance that exists within a great many areas of humanity, specifically environmentalism and religion. As Toller immerses himself in what he realizes is the hopeless cause of saving the planet, the more he comes to represent the hypocrisy he so resents. He protests the pollution and destruction of the planet, yet he poisons his own body with alcohol and other self-destructive behavior. At one point, Michael Gaston’s character even points out to Toller that he should take a look at himself before he criticizes others.
As gripping as watching the downward spiral of a broken man is, First Reformed is more than a character study, and Toller is only representative of mankind at large. No point in the film points this reality out as eloquently as the ending, which makes a clean break from its formerly lifeless cinematography with a dazzling camera move around two characters in embrace. I mustn’t spoil anything more about that transcendental release, as it is absolutely worth witnessing first-hand, but I will say that it is breathtaking and soul-shaking, loaded with poetically beautiful symbolism yet thoroughly discomforting.
Though Schrader owes much of the soul of his film to directors of the past, his achievement lies in updating that spirit to modern issues and facilitating its accessibility to audiences today. Though it does broach today’s issues of climate change, corporate greed, and the existence of God, First Reformed never falls victim to becoming an overtly political film nor a truly cynical one. It’s difficult for me to place First Reformed among the other films of 2018, but I do know that I haven’t left the theater so exhaustively shaken all year.