Who can know the mind of God? Can you still preach the gospel when you yourself no longer pray? How much abnegation is too much? These are the issues troubling the mind (and stomach) of Reverent Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor of a tiny congregation at an equally tiny First Reformed Church in New York State.
His already precarious mental and spiritual state is further disrupted when one of his parishioners, the heavily pregnant and pointedly-named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks for help counselling her despondent husband. Environmental activist Michael (a painfully open and vulnerable Philip Ettinger) cannot ignore the devastation man has wrought upon the Earth’s climate, and he asks: is it right to bring a baby into such a doomed world?
Those are the heady topics being wrestled with by the star of First Reformed, with Hawke putting in what is comfortably a career-best performance of profound discomfort. In his time of existential crisis, Toller does not simply shirk the materialism of the world around him in an act of religious asceticism, he actively discourages help or support from those around him, including Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, née The Entertainer) of the neighbouring Abundant Life Ministries, and ex-wife Esther (Victoria Hill) who works at the self-same corporate mega-church.
He instead attempts to solve everything on his own. He treats his religious crisis by beginning a diary, which we hear snippets from in voiceover. He attempts to soothe his stomach problems by mixing Pepto-Bismol into his scotch, the camera slowly zooming into the blooming mixture like the moment with the fizzing Alka-Seltzer in Taxi Driver. He maintains the 250-year-old chapel without the assistance of anyone. And he takes on Michael’s counselling, even when it becomes clear that he is as much being convinced by the young man’s apocalyptic predictions as the father-to-be is his Biblical allegories.
First Reformed, the latest and possibly last film from 72-year-old Paul Schrader, is recognisable as the work of the man who brought us Taxi Driver and American Gigolo in content, if not form. Schrader’s filmography, as both his own director and as screenwriter for Martin Scorsese, isn’t wanting for tales of moral degradation and the deteriorating psyche of a succession of (male, white, American) anti-heroes.
The difference here is the style. Decades after literally writing the book on it, Schrader has a made a film in what he calls the “transcendental style,” typified by his heroes Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. In stark contrast to many of the movies Schrader has been involved with, the transcendental style is characterised by a slower pace, lack of visual pyrotechnics, and an overall muted tone.
Therefore, First Reformed is filmed in an ascetic manner not dissimilar from the minimalist existence of Reverend Toller. It is shot in the boxy “Academy Ratio;” the camera barely moves; the characters only raise their voice on occasion; there is an almost complete absence of non-diegetic music, with the few instances of Welsh industrial composer Lustmord’s original score consisting of rumbling, portentous sounds.
This deliberate withholding of what the audience usually expects from a film — especially a Paul Schrader film — makes the moments where the film does break the rules, including a trippy sequence straight out of the visual effects experiments in Mishima, especially striking. While the film clearly borrows from the pacing and cinematography of Ozu, Bresson, and recent “slow cinema” exponents like Pawel Pawlikowski, it remains a Schrader joint through-and-through, right up to its climax.
At the point First Reformed takes a distinct left turn from Diary of a Country Priest to Diary of a Madman, the sick inevitability of a violently tragic finale begins to curdle in your stomach. That low-level suspense remains for the remaining running time. Yet the strength of the scenes that precede it, focusing on the particular tragic isolation of Hakwe’s character, the despondency of Ettinger’s Michael and pragmatism of Seyfried’s Mary, are not diluted. By placing his actors front and centre, literally and figuratively, and letting their performances run in long takes that sometimes border on the theatrical, Schrader achieves a level of cinematic grace he has perhaps been striving for his whole career, without ceding his strength when it comes to broad and highly-symbolic narratives.
First Reformed is in cinemas now.
DIRECTOR: Paul Schrader
CAST: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles
RUNTIME: 1h 53m