Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer
Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke), a protestant priest that leads a small congregation in upstate New York is struggling to talk to God, and so instead records his thoughts in a journal. However, bad health, tragedy and worldly concerns lead him to feeling increasing despair and isolation.
Going by some of his recent abysmal offerings as writer / director, it is almost hard to remember that Paul Schrader gave us the scripts to some genre defining films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, while films like Auto Focus are a reminder that he can also be very good behind the camera as well as a scriptwriter. While, after a couple of terrible films starring Nicholas Cage, First Reformed is a stunning return to form for Schrader, and it is a dark, cathartic and at times harrowing character study that is not afraid to ask some dark and uncomfortable questions and leaves the audience to provide the potential answers.
There are definitely more than a few elements of Travis Bickle in Ethan Hawke’s character in that he is ‘God’s lonely man’ and trying to make sense of his increasingly dark internal conflict and make sense of the world around him and all the darkness he sees in the world that only serves to fuel that internal conflict. Schrader uses the plot device of the protagonist keeping a diary to sum up his internal thoughts through a voice-over, and though this is certainly a very much tried-and-tested narrative device, Schrader uses it effectively without ever relying on it too much that it becomes lazy. Many of us have internal feelings and thoughts that we struggle to describe verbally to others, and Reverend Toller should of course have God that he can speak to regarding his internal conflicts and feelings, but he cannot, and so his single outlet is this diary. Schrader skilfully makes sure to keep the voice-overs to an effective minimum, so that there are plenty of moments where it is just Ethan Hawke with his thoughts.
For a character-driven narrative like this to work, we of course require a protagonist that we can empathise with, and this of course requires a good script, but most importantly a great performance, and Ethan Hawke is superb as Reverend Toller; he delivers a performance of nuanced subtlety, and through his body language he often sums up perfectly the deep internal torment that his character is experiencing. Though his character is a priest that has been through some very dark and unique experiences, there is still a universal element about his internal conflict and struggles to find a meaning and purpose in life and make sense of all the terrible things that seem to happen in this world, and this enable us to truly to empathise with his character. The fact that our protagonist is a man of religion adds extra weight to profound and universal questions that our protagonist, and indeed the narrative ask, as of all people, he should have God to speak to that can provide some kind of answer.
The narrative examines some pertinent themes regrading man’s contribution to climate change and seeming reluctance to do anything about it, and mankind’s corruption and hypocrisy that seems to even extend to those in charge at the very top of the religious groups. However, the film never adopts a preachy tone, but just asks enough questions that we can apply to our own lives and truly question the point in it all.
At times the film does suggest that it will take some rather unsavoury turns, but thankfully Schrader skilfully avoids this, and it just further emphasises the poignancy of the narrative themes as our protagonist tries to make sense of all the darkness that exists in the world. First Reformed provides an ending that may frustrate many but is a suitably ambiguous ending that is perfectly in tone with rest of the narrative, and caps of an impressive return to form from Schrader.
A dark, confrontational and deeply engaging character study that features a stunning lead performance; First Reformed examines many universal themes and will longer long in the memory.