Directed by Paul Schrader
First Reformed is great. It’s the type of movie I eat up, you know that kind of arthouse, slow burn type of character study. It’s another A24 release, shot in a square ratio like last year’s A Ghost Story. Like that film this one is quiet, so stripped of music and dialogue that oftentimes we only learn by looking and by listening carefully. Because of this silence we pick up on the most subtle of noises, like a ticking clock, the creaks of old floorboards or the squeaks of a door hinge. First Reformed makes us feel these small pressures exerted by us on the world or vice versa. This provides texture, and the slow pace of each shot and the film as whole makes the race to the finish line much more impactful.
First Reformed is an exercise in restraint, I suppose. Writer/Director Paul Schrader is most known for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as well as for other films he’s made about single-minded, isolated male figures. You see a lot of Travis Bickle in Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), and his sense of idealism and despair harkens back to Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).
These earlier films work to their climax, but for the most part they are unhinged. When I think Paul Schrader I think violence, though I may just be forgetting how long Taxi Driver took to reach its bloody finale.
There is some violence in First Reformed, but not as much as I’m left feeling there was. The violence is more abstract, more about a worldview. When Toller and a troubled young man, Michael (Philip Ettinger) talk about the world, I felt like I was watching something like madness unfold. It’s a simple conversation with characters looking at each other from opposite sides, and maybe it’s that sense of confrontation which feels violent, just the simple acknowledgement of their differences and the challenges that follow.
Toller says as much. Throughout the film he keeps a journal, and in voice over we become acquainted with his thought process. This is important because the film tracks Toller’s line of thinking, letting us follow it every step of the way.
Toller is a Reverend at a small, failing church in upstate New York. He has only been in this line of service for a few years following a military career, the death of his son and the subsequent break up of his marriage. Toller fell into the church because of a personal crisis, and a new one, a crisis of faith, introduces us to this story.
We know almost immediately that Reverend Toller is not one of those silent, comfortable, zen-like figures who has an answer for everything. He even admits that his involvement in this line of work comes from despair, and it’s pretty clear that he’s still trying to figure this all out.
When Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to speak with her husband, Michael, Toller finds something and someone to attach his existential despair to. Michael is depressed. He doesn’t want Mary to carry their baby to term, mostly because he is sure the world is well on its way to dying.
Michael presents Toller and us with sobering scientific data like in An Inconvenient Truth about global warming. By 2050, when Michael’s son or daughter is 33, the world will be an awful place. He doesn’t know how he could look a child in the eye and admit that he brought him/her into this world knowing its condition.
Toller is there to talk Michael back from the ledge, and he does an adequate job, saying that we all see the blackness, but that it doesn’t last forever. That night in his journal he admits to not knowing how best to handle this case.
As the events go on we understand that Toller himself is very ill. He fights back the occasional coughing fit and slowly admits it might be time to see a doctor. The parallel between Toller and the state of the world is clear, they’re both dying.
The Reverend’s frame of mind soon follows, and before we know it we chart his Walter White-like descent into something dark. He never completely loses himself which makes the film all the more frightening as we are right there with him. It’s only at the very end of the film that we find ourselves a step behind, wondering what Toller is up to without already knowing his motivations and planned course of action.
I love this movie. It’s fully realized, textured, beautiful and haunting. There are more than a few uncomfortable moments but for different reasons. It’s a complex film with an open-ended finale but one that offers resolution nevertheless. First Reformed requires your attention and demands your involvement in the film. It’s one of those films I feel like I could discuss for hours. What does it mean? Does Toller’s sense of martyrdom come from a good place or is his journey fueled by something darker, more selfish and more human?
The final image of the film is a beautiful but unexpected one. It suggests a way we can all be saved and all will be saved, and the moment resists easy quantification. I find myself using the final moment as evidence that Michael was wrong to feel such despair, even with a mountain of scientific evidence, and similarly this final beat casts doubt on Toller’s eventual certainty in regards to his self-assigned mission.
Are we all fools who know not what we do (biblical speak)? The film certainly accuses the men behind large, world-destroying corporations but so too does it undercut the supposedly enlightened mission of someone like Toller, implying that all his rage, doubt and self-righteousness is fueled by his isolation and not the other way around.
Up Next: Cul-de-sac (1966), Deadpool 2 (2018), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)