FIRST REFORMED (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW
Written and Directed by: Paul Schrader
Produced by: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger
Paul Schrader is one of the greatest writers that has ever committed a career to cinema. He has been involved in the writing of exceptional films including: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Blue Collar (1978), American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Light Sleeper (1992), Affliction (1997) etc. Of late he’d had some misfires, however, First Reformed, is a devastating return to form for Schrader.
Tapping into the structure and themes of arguably his greatest work, Taxi Driver (1976), we find Ethan Hawke portraying New York chaplain, Reverend Ernst Toller. He is a complex, haunted and sad man, yet instilled with a strong sense of duty and commitment to his dwindling congregation. He keeps a journal to record his thoughts and these are delivered via a devastating voice-over. Hawke’s voice staggers across the images delivering a combination of existential pleas for understanding and an intelligent questioning of the world around him. Toller’s depression or malaise is not helped by his alcoholism and illness spreading through his body. Thus, Schrader and Hawke create a very empathetic character, out of sync and in grief but very likable to his peers and flock.
When Amanda Seyfried’s local mum-to-be Mary comes to see him about her troubled husband, Michael, Toller agrees to speak with him about his concerns for the world and the damage humans are inflicting on the environment. When the drama arrives you just feel every agonising moment through Hawke’s beautifully realised character. Just watching Ethan Hawke in a room is enough for me as he is such a nuanced and clever actor. Schrader frames Toller in doorways, rooms, shadows, mirrors and pulpits, pushing him into spaces and trapping him. The sparse nature of the sets also acts as a symbol of Toller’s emptiness and feeling of despair at the world. Yet, at no time does he question his faith per se. The film certainly has an air of that but the big indictment is the horror we have perpetuated upon God’s Earth; challenging whether we deserve this beautiful planet.
Ultimately, this is quintessential Paul Schrader. Taking a broken individual in the midst of a life crisis and attempting to find salvation or redemption. Whereas Taxi Driver (1976) was, in part, about Travis Bickle cleaning up the streets of New York, Ernst Toller finds a desire to clean up the corporate and capitalist industrial processes which are destroying the Earth. While First Reformed’s ending is not as explosive or cathartic as Taxi Driver it paradoxically creates hope for a fascinating character nonetheless. While he may not be able to save the Earth, Reverend Toller, may somehow be able to save himself.