First Reformed - Review

Paul Schrader writes films with blurry characters. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and now First Reformed. Motivations can be unclear, as backstory is revealed like the slow peel of a sticker off an iPhone. For his twentieth feature, Schrader has written and directed a film that is not only breathtaking in its experimental virtues, but also takes a stance on something in a world full of middle ground filmmakers. 

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Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, pastor to First Reformed Church in upstate New York. First Reformed is celebrating its 250th anniversary in the form of a Reconsecration, masterminded by the local megachurch, Abundant Life. This dynamic, between small and large churches, gives the film something to stand on, but as the plot rolls along, there is much much more. First Reformed tells its story through character, not exposition. When Toller experiences the tragedy of discovering the suicide of a troubled activist friend, there is no exposition dump to explain his feelings to the audience. There is hefty narration, but it is a red herring, often revealing very little insight into Toller's troubled mind despite being presented as his complete thoughts. By the time Toller is strapping on a suicide vest with intention to kill those at the Reconsecration at the end of the film, it makes sense. 

The environment is a character unto itself in First Reformed, symbolizing the doom that pervades Toller's mind. Several lengthy conversations make it clear to the audience that Schrader has something to say about the climate change debate, which is hardly a debate at all. The world is changing, dying, and Christians are standing docile as it happens. Shouldn't we be the ones to stand for preservation, to save God's creation? When the young activist confesses to Toller that he wants his wife to have an abortion, his motive is clear; it would not be just to bring a child into a world doomed to die. The shock of First Reformed is the grace in which it presents these themes. Characters debate the subject, justifying the problem through people who care about it. This is First Reformed's biggest success: Speaking truth to climate change through natural characters, always in service of the plot. 

Amanda Seyfried and Ethan Hawke have a special dynamic throughout the film, even if Seyfried is constricted to mostly hushes and nervous chatter, not her usual sunny acting style. This collected method makes it very easy to understand why Toller would fall for her over the course of the film, despite swearing off love after the death of his son and failure of his marriage, and why she falls for him. When the two eventually embrace, it is a classic piece of film catharsis. 

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Hawke shines in the role of Toller, calling to mind films like Taxi Driver, who's protagonist could be hard to cheer for. Toller is real and crazy, seen in the final act. The "magical mystery tour" sequence is gorgeous and carefree, and it left me in awe. A filmmaker who can shoot a scene so absurd and retain emotion is truly a talented one. Every shot in First Reformed conveys great emotion, often sadness. The opening fade into the Church is eerie, and the opening titles sent me back to an older age of film. The film is shot in 1.37:1, or the Academy ratio. It is glamorous, and the still nature of the cinematography makes each shot feel like a beautiful oil painting, set up exactly so. 

First Reformed is a vicious critique of anti-environmentalists and the Christian Church, and it does so in fascinating ways. Ethan Hawke is pitch-perfect as Toller, mixing with the amazing Amanda Seyfried to form a film that stands for something important, and is also incredibly beautiful, if that's important to you.