“A world without hope”. It’s an idea wrestled with (in some form or another) by several characters and it’s one of many things on the mind of “First Reformed”, the latest film from writer-director Paul Schrader. This hopelessness feeds a lingering despair that is mirrored in the lives of several key players and is woven into the very fabric of this hypnotic exploration.
I realize that may not be the most upbeat way to introduce a movie, but when honestly dealing with themes of guilt, obsession, self-destruction, and despair the rays of light should be just as difficult for us to find as it is for the characters. And much like the ‘Crisis of Faith’ classics it follows, “First Reformed” is more interested in the spiritual and emotional struggle as well as the toll it takes on the human psyche.
Giving the performance of his career, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller. He pastors a Dutch Colonial church is upstate New York known more as a historical landmark than a place of worship. First Reformed Church gets by thanks to its parent megachurch, ironically named Abundant Life. It’s ran with a businesslike prowess by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer). Jeffers preaches to packed houses and has big community connections. Toller sees more sightseers than parishioners and struggles in his alone time to reconnect with God.
After a Sunday service Toller is approached by one of his few faithful church members, a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried). She implores him to meet with and counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) whose environmental fanaticism has driven him into a deep state of depression. Michael questions the “sanctioning” of bringing a child into a world he believes to be doomed and he poses a question that haunts Reverend Toller for the duration of the film, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
Always a solid actor, Hawke dials back from the type of performances he’s known for. It’s a quiet and reserved portrayal allowing much to be told through expression and even appearance. Deep wrinkles etched in his brow held up by tired, forlorn eyes. You truly get a vision of a man who as Schrader himself put it “has lived a life”. In his case it hasn’t been an easy one. Harboring guilt from his past, unable to connect with God through prayer, and sickly due to a worsening stomach ailment. You can’t help but see shades of the struggling young priest from Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest”.
The great French auteur wasn’t the only influence for Schrader. Hints of Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet”, Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”, Tarkovsky, Ozu and Rossellini are everywhere. You even see him pulling from the same thematic toolkit he used in his acclaimed collaborations with Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”).
The cracks in Reverend Toller’s psyche begin to show after an especially troubling tragedy. Add to that pressures from his church’s upcoming 250th anniversary reconsecration ceremony. During his daily duties Toller puts up a good front. But it’s at night, alone with his thoughts and journal, when we see the gravity of his dark inner turmoil. He’s a man mired in self-destruction and self-contradictions, yet at the same time he is yearning for the voice of God. He’s a good man who has lost his way.
The mood of the film is nailed down via Alexander Dynan’s stellar cinematography. The cold gray tones and deep shadows are only occasionally washed with color and those instances aren’t without meaning. There is also the stillness of Dynan’s camera offering very little motion at all. But in the rare scenes where the camera does move, you can be sure the movements are rich with purpose. Add to it the intensely effective score from Welsh composer Brian Williams, minimal yet undeniably foreboding.
In the 27th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus cries out “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” It’s a cry of anguish from the Son of God calling out to His Father but hearing no response. To an obviously lesser degree, you can imagine the same cry burning in the heart of Reverend Toller. It all builds up to an ending that feels slightly out of tune with the rest of the film (or does it?). And while fascinating to watch and contemplate, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. At the same time I love how I’m still wrestling with it. And when complimented by a bracing career-best turn from Hawke, strong supporting work throughout, and an auteurist presentation, you have a film that I can’t help but love.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS