Paul Schrader‘s First Reformed is a study in mendacity, religious or otherwise. Few in film can lay claim to films, such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Affliction. And while Schrader is a legend, it did appear as though that legend would flicker into the ages. Thankfully, he’s brought us a film that not only skips down the cinematic lanes created by Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, but also offers us an innate and passionate brand of filmmaking that, at times, his previous works have lacked.
From the outset, First Reformed is steeped in history. Filmed in the Academy ratio, the title lifts its moniker from the name of the church depicted in the film. The building itself is hardly an edifice. More chapel than cathedral. But its origins date back to over 250 years ago, even harboring slaves on the Underground Railroad. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the priest assigned to this parish, is comfortable in his paltry surroundings, in a church that’s falling apart (even its organ is broken).
In fact, his lifestyle would be more akin to a monk than a 21st century man. That’s in sharp contract to Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, credited here as Cedric Kyles). Jeffers the head of a megachurch, is a walking billboard for the gluttony associated with some forms of modern Christianity and their mendacity. Toller is often uneasy with this materialism. The contrast between the two’s surroundings: Toller’s sparse bedroom (featuring only a bed, desk, and chair) compared to Jeffers’s corporate-like offices is a study in storytelling without words.
Much of the film is threaded together through Toller, for reasons that escape us and him, keeping a journal. The journal as a storytelling device is key, as we’re never sure what Toller is including. In fact, we know far more about what he is excluding, as he tells us when he’s removing pages than what he’s including. And though he’s a simple man, as a narrator, Toller is not to be trusted. In short, the journal he’s keeping is mendacity.
Nevertheless, while the journal is kept in the background, in the foreground, Schrader tosses our quiet and stoic preacher into a maelstrom. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant wife, has a husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who believes children shouldn’t be brought into this world. Michael is a hardcore environmentalist, and considers the future of the planet fait accompli. It’s through his relationship with Michael and Mary that Toller enters into the modern world. And it’s because of them, that he sees his existence as less than Eden and closer to a coming Inferno.
Consequently, as the film progresses, Toller sinks deeper and deeper into despair. Schrader, during a Q&A at the Chicago Critics Film Festival opined, that “Toller catches a disease from Michael. The disease of environmentalism.” And while that serves as a possibility, it also appears that Toller’s despair can fly under a few flags: from a mental breakdown, to psychosis, to an environmental epiphany. Regardless, the events that follow pulls us to the depths of the metaphysical resulting in what might be a controversial ending.
However, before those excruciating final scenes, Schrader never ceases to gleefully wink to his audience. Throughout the film, he switches between an examination of spiritualism, a current appraisal of our apathy toward our planet, and a psychological character study. First Reformed could have been any of those three, and sometimes, I think it suffers from not announcing fealty with one. However, Schrader, for the most part, does keep his audience on its toes.
But it’s Ethan Hawke, long the most underrated actor of his generation, who holds the film together. There’s a decent chance that Toller is as mentally ill as Michael, a man who has thought about being a suicide bomber, yet we only receive hints of that. The same could be said of Toller’s affair with Esther (Victoria Hill). Partly, those tantalising hints are down to the script, as Schrader’s innate sense for character succeeds. But it’s also the actor who has to sell it. And as Hawke jumps from stoic rock, to pleading child, to ill, he rarely overplays any facet. Even as we know Toller to be unreliable, it’s Hawke who gives us faith in the character. It’s Hawke who suspends our disbelief of the character’s obvious mendacity.
And while Schrader almost over intellectualizes his ending, it doesn’t detract from the psychological subtly he infuses into this work. A work that most 30 year old’s would welcome, and one that a 71 year old might have thought would never come around again.
An official selection of Chicago Critics Film Festival, First Reformed is due for wide release May 24h, 2018.