- Review by Patrick Byrne
This latest film from Paul Schrader is concise, skilful and unerringly blunt. First Reformed is challenging, but very fine cinema, the sort that calls for multiple viewings. Having only seen it once and with a word-count to keep, I cannot be as in depth as the movie deserves, but can attempt an expression of its immediate power and weight which remain with me even as I write, and attempt to isolate some of what the movie does so right. Schrader tells us the story of reverend Ernst Toller, (Ethan Hawk) whose solitary routine at an antique church is broken when Mary, (Amanda Seyfried) arranges for him to meet her husband (Philip Ettinger), a despairing environmental activist who urges her to abort their child rather than bring it into a collapsing world. Also on Toller’s mind is his dwindling congregation, failed family life and the unwelcome sympathies of associates at the local megachurch. Having watched powerlessly as his neighbours become ambivalent to his God’s word, he now watches them shirk in the face of climate catastrophe.
The reader will immediately discern how performance driven this film is. Hawk’s Toller fills the screen with pent up desperation in a performance which expertly portrays the man’s inner life, his self-lacerating hatred of his own flaws and it is sapping him of the energy to forgive those of others. His reading out of a secret journal takes us harrowingly close to the inner world he lacks the courage to express. Hawk’s performance deserves further credit as the audience’s vehicle into the world of the film. He has dialogue with every other character on screen and each interaction brings out new sides of Toller’s personality. This performance, more than anything else, is the beating heart of the movie.
The reader will also discern how thematically laden First Reformed is. The dialogue moves through one meditation after another, on climate change, man’s relationship with God, faith, ideological tribalism, before cutting back to scenes of utter silence, where the performances, score and camera maintain the tension. One might call such thematic exposition heavy handed, blatant or a tad artificial. At times this might be true. For the most part though, the various character’s long discourses serve to inform the development of our central character. The ponderous and inconclusive stretches of dialogue intensify the frustration, stagnation and confusion surrounding Toller, and are well supplemented by Alexander Dynan’s extraordinary cinematography, his compact aspect ratio and austere colour palette mirroring Toller’s psychological entrapment and joylessness.
The movie maintains a slow, deliberate pace, even as Toller becomes ever more fearful of an environmental disaster and furious at those around him ambivalent to it. Soon his obsession with ecological meltdown becomes a personal meltdown of nihilism and rage. The result is a final act wringing with desperation and fury, and a finale so bizarre, uncomfortable and over the top, that only a film as thoroughly engaging as this could have kept the audience invested throughout.
The unapologetically long and detailed dialogue scenes, the catastrophizing dialogue, the graphic violence, the sparing use of an unnerving score. I think that calling it blunt will give the reader a good idea of what to expect, and I will conclude by encouraging them to see it. I have attempted only to give an impression of what First Reformed is like, the reader should go in expecting to glean more.