First Reformed review Ethan Hawke Amanda SeyfriedYear: 2018
Director(s): Paul Schrader
Writer(s): Paul Schrader
Region of Origin: USA

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 113 mins

Synopsis: The priest of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past. (Source)

It’s a tragic, but well-proven fact that a lot of evil is born from good intentions. This idea is the easiest “in” to Paul Schrader’s dense First Reformed. A self-professed successor to the director’s own Taxi Driver, his latest is a masterwork of psychological torment, pulling on a thread that exposes today’s climate of extremism and desperation. Rich with nuance and atmosphere, Schrader dissects the gulf between conviction and action, using the dangers of unchecked isolation and Christian ideology to explore a tenuous balance between good and evil. This is absolutely one of the year’s most suffocating thrillers, leaning on another career-defining performance from Ethan Hawke, and ending on a note so explosive, it rocks us to the core.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a historic, upstate New York church named First Reformed. While the church’s parent entity, Abundant Life, boasts state-of-the-art facilities and a massive congregation, Toller’s assembly is quaint and jokingly relegated to a souvenir shop. Still, Toller is completely committed to his role in public, holding fast to faith, while in secret, struggling with physical and emotional ailments. All of this comes to a head when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant woman from his congregation, asks for help with her troubled husband. Toller obliges, but in doing so opens up deep personal wounds. As his church nears its 250th Anniversary, Toller is forced to put faith into action.

Above all, Schrader’s film is a wakeup call, pointed at a time in which faith, cultural and environmental upheaval are at the brink. It isn’t hard to look at current headlines and see the self-destructive nature that plagues and oft-times connects faith-based conviction and violent rebellion. Giving each of these ideas a voice, is the weary Toller. Within Toller, is a search for meaning and purpose in a world that seems to have none. Torn between convictions, drowning guilt, doubt and personal obligation, is someone who can’t stand silent or inert any longer. Suddenly, the abstract constructs of good and evil seem to form a cruel synergy apathetic towards Toller and human nature’s feeble understanding. This is all breathtaking rendered through Schrader’s measured patience, who films everything with utmost delicacy and pin-point precision. Dealing with abstracts, Schrader fills the story with rich symbolism, amounting to surreal dread that is transfixing and oppressive.

First Reformed Ethan HawkePunctuating Schrader’s immaculate direction, is an affecting performance from Ethan Hawke. As Toller, Hawke embodies both compassion and angst. What fleetingly feels like stoicism is soon revealed to be immense internal pressure. There’s only so much this man can take before something has to give. Consistently framed dead on through Schrader’s preferred square aspect ratio, Hawke pierces the screen, touching us explicitly with painful honesty. On the side, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer and Victoria Hill provide more context to Schrader’s philosophical musing, rounding things out with characters that add complexity and depth.

Fittingly, First Reformed doesn’t and shouldn’t give any clear answers. It’s a cautionary tale for the types of thinking prevalent throughout, but also an empathetic perspective that urges us to take a step back. Though there are clear villains strung about, right actions and noble choices are obscured by human frailty and necessity. Schrader dives headfirst into a query of spirituality, complacency and apathy that few are comfortable tackling in this day and age. To this end, Schrader paints a damning portrait of how we hold ourselves back, as well as a solemn prayer for the compassion deep within.

SG