Ethan Hawke's First Reformed


When Ethan Hawke's character in First Reformed pulls his friend and admirer aside to chastise her for checking in on him, I was convinced Hawke had done it. The performance that would define him had been given, and it really shouldn't have been a surprise. Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, directed and wrote this film, and his casting of Ethan Hawke was a calculated risk. Hawke was coming off a string of studio horror and action films, his meticulous performance in 2014's Boyhood nearly forgotten.

Paul was ready to make a statement for today. The film's themes echo the pain Toller feels as he is resigned to silence on environmental issues by his superiors, told to stick to what he knows best which is ultimately managing a Christian museum. Toller's quietness at the beginning of the film undergoes a drastic transformation, pulling him away from mild-mannerdness. His actions become increasingly radical, and just as in Boyhood, these changes occur in many moments. Toller's discovery of the body of his new friend is shot in terrifying stills so that we can see Hawke's entire reaction to the discovery. Up until that point, Toller had been fine where he was, all too happy to show guests around his church. He doesn't expect in a million years that Michael would have killed himself in the white woods where blood reacts sharply to the snow. He is startled in the way that one is told they have a serious disease, shaken to his absolute core over the revelation. To make this naive person believable, it was necessary for Hawke to push himself into more violent and chaotic places, and at first glance it looks depressing. This actor who has starred in a number of thrillers and romantic dramas suddenly going cold and calculating? But this is exactly what makes his performance so excellent. 

Toller dances carefully around the idea of radical action throughout the second half of First Reformed, clearly changed by Michael's suicide. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Michael's widow (played by Amanda Seyfried) lays down on top of him and the two experience a transcendental moment. As they fly together through images of nature and pollution, Toller's face is open and his eyes are transfixed. This signals his enlightenment and through simple, unchanging facial movements, Hawke makes the scene. For a star who's best roles involve excellent writing, often written by himself, this scene marks a drastic shift. Every moment after this it must be questioned how Toller will react. When he careens into his admirer, it is a shocking result. Before, her inquisitive nature would only serve to frustrate him, but now he has allowed that frustration to boil over. 

"...I feel this role is one that a lot of previous roles have prepared me to play" 

Hawke's evolution as an actor has occurred in a curious way. Much like his acting philosophy in Boyhood, it never happened in one year, but over time. Age is the defining variable in Hawke's life, and has been used to his advantage in many of his films (specifically the Before Trilogy). Now, even as he appears in a film that is his biggest departure, his one moment of difference, he takes the role for a walk to see the sunset. Toller is a classic Hawke character in many ways; he is relaxed, mild, and changes little. Like Walter White, Toller always had the rage that causes him to mutilate himself and nearly kill dozens of people inside him, it just took time to set it off. When we look back in ten years at Ethan Hawke's acting career, First Reformed will not stick out like a sore thumb of change. No, instead it will be a highlight on a career that moves as slowly and unassumingly as time, quietly changing anything and everything around it when no one is looking.