By: Billy Cross
Paul Schrader is mostly known for his work with Martin Scorsese, writing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out The Dead (Way underrated). All great films. But what if I told you this guy has directed some outstanding films of his own? Blue Collar? Mishima? Hardcore? Now, in 2018, Schrader returns with perhaps his greatest work, First Reformed, a crushing meditation on faith, politics, and environmental anxiety endured by a despairing priest.
In one of his most brooding performances yet, Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Ernst Toller, pastor of a small, 250 year old relic with a dwindling following in upstate New York. He’s not doing so well after his son died in the Iraq War and his family distentigrated. You see, a former military chaplain himself, Toller encouraged his son to join the armed forces in the first place. His wife couldn’t forgive him for it and left. Now, he just looks as if he is going through the motions, managing an 18th century gift shop and drinking himself to death. Toller’s life hits another snag when he’s approached by a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) to counsel her distraught husband, a radical environmental activist. It is through this meeting that Rev. Toller begins to question his own role on Earth, spiritually and politically.
I appreciate what Schrader, along with Hawke’s incredible performance, accomplishes here, both visually and in written character. Ernst Toller’s parallels to Travis Bickle (Schrader’s character in Taxi Driver) are not by mistake. He just wears a cassock now. Toller lives in isolation, outpaced by society, pouring much of his thoughts into a journal he has vowed to keep up for one year before burning. When he finally finds purpose, much of his internal despair and confusion collide with the despair of the world around him with violent results. Sound familiar? Schrader, though, is not mirroring Scorsese’s style. This is very much his own heavy character study.
That heaviness is also carried visually through the starkness of the environments and lighting. You can tell from the opening shots that Schrader is more restrained, more meditative, in his approach. Shot in the boxy 4:3 ratio (and man, what a gorgeous, effective format here), the camera pushes forward at a low angle on the 18th century church. The white of the building against the overcasted sky, the leafless trees, together with the square-ish format, instills both reverence and doom. Interiors are often shot wide, little to no movement, with emphasis on empty spaces, perhaps with Toller blending into the shadows of the background. Schrader’s flourishes are saved for striking, emotionally charged close-ups of Toller, or the violent outcry of the film’s final moments. These images will sear into your brain.
Look, First Reformed isn’t for everyone, but it should be. It’s a vital piece of classic-style cinema that taps into the anxieties of our current societal failings, calling them out without flinching. It’s a brutal character study. It’s a call to arms. Whatever you get out of it, Schrader’s film will stand as a moving work that deserves our attention.