By Nate Blake
Paul Schrader’s film, about a former military chaplain named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) who becomes politically active after developing a relationship with a radical environmentalist named Michael (Philip Ettinger) and his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is essential viewing. It’s a thought provoking examination of how mainstream religion and environmentalism are often needlessly, even confusingly, at odds. Schrader, the scribe behind Taxi Driver, delivers a script that asks tough questions about humankind’s response to climate change. It’s one of the best films of the year.
First Reformed is a film where the plot should only be succinctly and vaguely described by any review. We learn about tragic moments in Toller’s life and see harder edges that demonstrate how human a man of God can be. I don’t want to say much more. I think perhaps a spoiler review later on may be necessary, and I’m certain this work will remain on my mind for months to come. What I can say is that Hawke delivers what may be a career best performance, which is impressive considering his work in films like Boyhood and Training Day. He is complemented by a small but solid cast that includes none other than Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers, the man Toller turns to when he needs to speak to a pastor but who also embodies the lack of concern some religious leaders seem to have about the way people treat God’s non-human creations. In that spirit, the film introduces, briefly but importantly, the issue of abortion, within its first couple minutes. Toller’s reaction to the suggestion of abortion is telling and exactly what you’d think. Later on, when Jeffers encourages Toller to stay out of politics, it rings hollow and hypocritical. Since when are Christian leaders apolitical, especially when it comes to Planned Parenthood or sexuality?
This is a slow, mostly minimalist thriller. The pace will be off-putting for some, but they’ll be missing out on one of the most taught and near flawless scripts in recent memory. The film could be called a re-working of Taxi Driver, but Schrader’s direction only occasionally provides visual references to the similarities between Reverend Toller and Travis Bickle. The film’s impact mainly comes from the performances and dialogue. Schrader holds his few non-minimalist flourishes for one or two key moments in the wild final act. Much of the film’s running time is composed of long static shots and claustrophobic close ups. There is no score over the opening titles or during most of the first two acts, and even the film’s aspect ratio, which confines the characters to a prison-like square in the middle of the screen, depicts a bleak, slowly ending world and the characters’ anxieties about whether it is too late to do anything.
The film doesn’t hold back in its indictment of much of mainstream religion’s inaction on environmental issues. But it’s not an endorsement of the radical tactics Michael explores either. I’ll let you see the film and its ending for yourself so you can discover how it accomplishes this. The final moments are fitting, earned, beautiful and surprising. First Reformed is, itself, a bit unexpected. I only found out about it a week or two ago, and its late spring/early summer theatrical release is not typical for films of this caliber. It’s a great bit of counter-programming from A24, so I was sad to see only three other people at the showtime I caught earlier today. It’s a masterpiece that deserves a full auditorium for every showtime.