In the new drama First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, Ethan Hawke is extremely good as Ernst Toller, a small-town priest who was once a military chaplain.
Toller carries a major sense of guilt. Following a family pattern, he encouraged his son to join the military. His son was sent to Iraq where he was killed within six months. Now, with failing health and alone, Toller is a priest to a Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York that is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. His congregation is small and dwindling, overshadowed by the much larger, nearby Abundant Life Church run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as comedian Cedric The Entertainer, and also good), where its sound equipment is state of the art and its congregation, 5,000 plus.
Then there’s Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her disturbed husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary wants Reverend Toller to speak with Michael. Listen to him, counsel him. Mary and Michael are expecting, but Michael’s fear, his all-encompassing paranoia, is that, environmentally, the world is no longer a place to raise a child. Pollution, waste, rivers of floating trash, all add to Michael’s sense of hopelessness for the future. Toller listens, and is even sympathetic, but cannot save him. In a moment of shocking surprise, Michael takes his life. Though it’s not immediately evident, this sacrificial act will eventually inspire Toller’s own preparation for an act of violence, one that doesn’t fully convince, yet comes not altogether unexpected considering the style of the project, and who wrote and directed the film.
As with Schrader’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Ethan Hawke’s Toller narrates throughout. With Bickle, it was a self-reflective, internal conversation where the character explored his thoughts and feelings, commented on the events of the day, and found justification for a horrendously violent act. In First Reformed, Toller writes in a diary where his self-reflection is a twelve-month experiment in committing his thoughts to paper rather than random commentary, but the end result of a voice-over narration sounds the same.
“When writing about oneself, you should show no mercy,” Toller writes, adding that from the point of view of a priest, “Writing in the diary is a form of prayer.” But the more he writes, the more he questions himself, at one point asking about his twelve-month writing commitment. “Can I keep up an exercise that long?” he writes, eventually concluding that, “This journal brings me no peace. Self-pity, nothing more.”
Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is shot with a confining screen ratio of 1:37, which is practically a square, the kind of shape that would fit snugly into all four corners of an early TV screen, but no longer stretches out to a current, widescreen monitor. It’s not easy to say why. You can look for reasons and come up with suggestions indicating the narrowing of Toller’s restrictive world, or maybe his confining point-of-view, or that life around him is closing in. The reason behind the shape is never clear. Looking for one reminds of the exercise the late film critic Roger Ebert used to do with an audience when discussing a particular movie: pause the film, discuss motives, and even if there was never one there, find it. But whatever the reason, the end result looks eye-catching as Schrader directs the camera to remain theatrically static in rooms, churches, and offices, while characters walk in and out of the frame.
While exploring themes of mental illness, the effects of climate change, the dangers of denial, the corruption of finance, even martyrdom, there remains a sense of Schrader nuttiness, as seen in a floating fantasy sequence where Toller and Seyfriend’s Mary glide over changing images of the world, beginning with the beauty of the cosmos above, the planets oceans and its crashing waves below, then the sight of burnt vehicle tires, piles of trash, floating plastic garbage, and a burning planet.
Plus, First Reformed ends with a climax reminiscent of how The Sopranos closed – it doesn’t so much conclude as simply stops with an abrupt cut to a black screen. It’s one of those, “Now, wait a minute…” moments. It may work for some, particularly for those who love to break off into discussion groups and, like those Ebert audience participation evenings, find a reason for the edit, even if it’s not the one Schrader intended, but it also ensures that the film, as moving and as exceptionally well-performed as it is, will not be venturing far from its art-house audience.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 108 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)