Christianity and environmental activism are complex issues that can make both great and terrible films. For every Silence or Wall-E, there are a God’s Not Dead or On Deadly Ground’s. Combining these two topics together is Paul Schrader, the screenwriter for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Those films are classics, but he has not made anything significant. Although he is an experienced director, you would be hard pressed to name any film he has directed that was at all memorable. That has now changed, because First Reformed is one of the standouts of the year.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a preacher for a Calvinist church named First Reformed, which is coming up to its 250th anniversary. He is working with Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Keyes), a member of a modern popular church named Abundant Life. One day, he is asked by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to speak to her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinginger), an environmental activist who wants the pregnant Mary to have an abortion to avoid bringing a child into a world he believes is dying. Toller soon becomes obsessed with environmental activism as well and goes through a crisis of faith. He is also dealing with a relationship with a woman at Abundant Life named Esther (Victoria Hill), his alcoholism, his grief over his son who was killed in action in Iraq and other problems.
First Reformed features many storylines and themes, but what binds them together is the central character of Reverend Toller, who is also the narrator. The conflicts he goes through are relatable and make him compelling. Everyone can identify with personal concerns about health and relationships, as well as larger worries about the world. He is also likable because all his actions are in the name of helping others, which does not change even when he verges on losing his way. His journey feels believable and realistic, as well as shockingly bleak.
First Reformed‘s themes include religion, grief, suicide, faith, climate change, time, decay, fatherhood, love and death. What is impressive is how Schrader manages to juggle these as well as a lot of different story threads and characters without the story feeling cluttered or convoluted. The script takes its time with these elements and fleshes them out enough that they all feel relevant. Everything leads to an intense and harrowing final 10 minutes that might not satisfy everyone but will provoke audience debate and discussion on its meaning, especially with the ending.
The performances are largely excellent, though Ethan Hawke easily steals the show. Hawke is one of this generation’s best actors and his performance cements that. His voice sounds nice and welcoming, yet it clearly contains sadness and conflict. His emotions are understated, which is something that helps him perfectly portray a man who is attempting to deal with his issues but does not know how to. Amanda Seyfried is wonderfully mature and extremely sympathetic, getting substance out of what could have been a standard wife character. And Cedric Keyes (not using his stage name of Cedric The Entertainer) is surprisingly good in a dramatic role with a solid screen presence that matches Hawke’s performance. A small standout is also Phillip Ettinginger as Michael, who makes his crazed character feel natural and understandable.
The 1.37:1 aspect ratio, winter grey cinematography and lack of music creates a claustrophobic, bleak and realistic atmosphere. Schrader barely moves the camera and utilises a lot of long takes, which makes the film feel understated and honest. Combine all of this with the slow pace and First Reformed feels like an arthouse film that came out of the 1950s/60s, one that someone like Ingmar Bergman would have made. Even one sequence that goes into dream-like imagery is mesmerising and purposeful. If there was one technical problem I had, it was that most of the conversations were visually repetitive, as a lot of scenes start with a two shot and then go into close ups.
First Reformed is a weighty and challenging film that is certainly not for everyone but is filled with tremendous substance. It contains excellent writing which is backed up by terrific performances and direction. It is not Taxi Driver for this generation, but I can see it becoming just as iconic to Paul Schrader’s filmography.