Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring – Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer
The Plot – Reverend Ernest Toller (Hawke) is a solitary, middle-aged parish pastor at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the church is now a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock. When a pregnant parishioner (Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of grandiose violence.
Rated R for some disturbing violent imagery
– In casual Schrader fashion, there’s a lot within this film to be said about the world that offers much poignancy in debate. Whether it’s the corporation narrative that churches have become, the whiplash as a result of people not taking care of our world, or the confines that come from being a pastor, this is very much a Schrader movie, in that he’s a director who is never afraid of alienating his audience.
– The film uses narration so skillfully, a la Taxi Driver, in that there is a deep psychological tug-of-war between what Toller is thinking in his mind as compared to what he is writing in the notebook. This commentary in take allows us plenty of evidence of the struggle from within that help to shape the figure that he becomes by the powerful third act. Basically, he’s his own unreliable narrator, and that stance is something rarely seen by a narrator in a film.
– Hawke is doing some of the very best work of the latter part of his career. As Toller, we see a conflicted figure who is deeply affected by the loss of his son from many years ago, as well as a struggling patron outside of the cloth to live with the deep-seeded issues that come with living in the today’s world. Toller unleashes a beat down upon himself that allows Hawke to portray him as someone who is keeping the deepest secrets buried deep within the many people who only see him as this leader, and we as an audience find it easy to soak up his presence because of Hawke’s untimely collapse that is depicted in 100% of the film’s shots.
– Spell-binding photography. What impressed me the most about this film, aside from it being shot in a 1:37:1 ratio, was how reserved and dedicated that it stayed in camera style throughout the picture. With the exception of two memorable scenes that clearly point to the change within Toller’s life, the rest of the film is single, still-framed shots that insist on the characters coming to it. Throughout many single character perspectives, as well as wide-lens establishing shots, we learn as much as there is to know about the characters and atmospheres that Schrader would rather audiences grasp visually instead of audibly, and I couldn’t be more impressed with this decision.
– Minimal music cues. Perhaps even more surprising than the impeccable photography is the decision to accompany this film with very little musical tones. Composer Brian Williams chooses instead to play up his dark and ominous influence for the right moments, so as to not take too much away from the surrounding circumstance that suffocates through each scene. I believe this is the best way to not dilute how the audience interprets these scenes, and sometimes minimal inclusion makes for the biggest result.
– Alexander Dynan’s bleak cinematography that speaks levels to Toller’s aging disposition the further the truth takes him. Despite the fact that the majority of this film takes place inside of such a spiritual confinement, it’s interesting to see how the production takes advantage of such bare and desolate surroundings, creating beauty in the atmospheric sin that withers inside.
– Nothing ever felt predictable to me, despite the fact that many key elements are introduced early on that play a more prominent role the further the story develops. For my money, the ending was very much a last second twist that I didn’t see coming. Even if I can’t feel fully satisfied with the way the lack of effect that it takes on everyone but the two characters involved, I can still appreciate what Schrader is trying to tell us in terms of this important element that outranks everything else. This effect was even more evident, in that none of my audience members wanted to get up from their seats. They were that transfixed on the final images.
– While I don’t agree with many people labeling this as the Taxi Driver for the new generation, I can say that Schrader has brought along all of his best traits to make First Reformed feel like a greatest hits of his creativity. Aside from the claustrophobia in focusing solely on our lead character, Schrader again insists upon a candid view of the world that many are afraid to depict. He’s a director who excels in that hard-to-watch imagery that other directors look away from, but Paul stays committed to those shocking necessities that get under the skin of those who take in his films.
– Despite convictions that I can truly admire and respect him for, Schrader’s social commentary does occasionally overstep boundaries into heavy-handed and preachy territory that made me say “Enough already”. My problem isn’t so much that Paul uses 103 minutes to focus on overlooked social issues, but rather how redundant it feels when compared to the lack of development that some of the characters don’t receive. Because of this sluggish pacing, many people will give up on First Reformed before it reaches its best stuff, so the recommendation here comes with a bit of a warning.
– The film severely lacks nuance. I can get over a scene where two characters are flying over a city in an almost metaphysical moment, but a pregnant woman named Mary (of all names) is when I draw the line. And this is only one example of the lack of subtlety that plagues the film. I could go on, but it would be spoiler territory.