Boxed into an old school 4:3 ratio, First Reformed is a crisp, elegant and divinely constructed think piece from a top of his game Paul Schrader. Ethan Hawke gives a career best performance in the role of a man conflicted by his faith, personal tragedies and brutal awakening to the world around him, which, he comes to realise, shares his suffering. This is a film that dares to compare its implicated audience to God in a Lacanian conception of the viewer-screen relationship and hits hard with its emotional resonance.
Hawke plays Pastor Ernst Toller – surely named in tribute to the troubled German writer of the last century – the Protestant minister of First Reformed, a beautiful church in upstate New York. Whilst Toller’s congregation dwindles before his world weary eyes, tourists flow with greater regularity and have led First Reformed to be nicknamed the ‘Souvenir Shop’ by virtue of its impressive merchandise collection. Drained by his daily routine – too much drinking and an evident decline in his physical health – Toller is drawn to the idea of keeping a confessional diary, to set down his thoughts ‘factually and without hiding anything’. After twelve months, this wilfully handwritten account is to be destroyed: ‘shredded, then burned, the experiment will be over’. Across the film, Hawke dispassionately narrates Toller’s writing, although we are led to question his reliability and challenge the conceit that we are privy to all he writes. In unseen fits of regret, Toller removes pages from his diary, aghast at his own ‘delirium’. Based, in part, on his own relationship with religion, Schrader has gifted Hawke a remarkably intriguing character to work with and he delivers in response on every level.
The film’s principle narrative comes with a visit to the church from Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried – terrific), a newly pregnant Christian whose radical environmentalist husband has requested she have an abortion, so as to save their prospective child from a life on our dying planet. Mary wants Toller to speak to her husband – Philip Ettinger‘s Michael – and counsel him. As slowly becomes clear, however, the profundity of their encounter goes both ways. With increasing visual veracity – including a gorgeous sequence of ecstatic fantasy – Schrader captures Toller’s fracturing internal mind and his shifting focus from unconditional love to hate and despair. Swan like, Toller carries immense grace in his outward standing, and yet, beneath the surface, he is flailing wildly. In one shot, Schrader zooms in on a glass of whisky, into which Toller pours a gloopy pink Pepto-Bismol and the insight is utter perfection.
It is with similar stark beauty that Schrader captures Toller’s geometrical environment. First Reformed – in reality, the Zion Episcopal Church in Queens – hasn’t the colourful grandeur of the nearby, better populated, Abundant Life church but it as a transcendent elegance and alluring simplicity. Schrader’s square framing does wonders in bringing out the immense verticality of the building, with the opening approach proving particularly effective, and it is First Reformed’s Dutch aesthetic that directs Alexander Dynan’s near monochrome cinematography. Music provides a running backbone for the meatier themes of Schrader’s intricately crafted script and gains much from the church’s acoustic presence. As First Reformed’s 250th anniversary beckons, the visual and aural quality of the film does well to balance a rising sense of impending doom.
Some have found the final notes of First Reformed troubling and yet they must be seen as a visual summation, a climax, of Toller’s mental disintegration. Schrader pre-empts his conclusion earlier in the film with a passing remark from Toller himself: ‘Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers.’ In this light, the film ends with a leap of faith. Those who jump with it will leave on a tremendous high.