Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is asked by a pregnant parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to speak with her troubled husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger). Michael does not want to bring a child into a dying world and seems to have lost himself to despair over his planet’s inevitable decline. Toller councils him and believes he has helped him, but soon finds himself possessed of similar demons. As the 250th anniversary of his church looms, Toller must find peace with the hypocrisies and injustices around him or chose a more violent path.
First Reformed is a gorgeously filmed, meticulously paced character study and thriller. Very much like John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, the film seeks to place Catholicism in a modern context, and explore one man’s troubled faith in the face of what appears to be the end of days, only in a much more global sense. It’s not just Toller’s church and its lofty heritage that is at stake but the entire world. All sequences filmed within the church are filled with negative space. There’s very little furniture, and a thread-bare quality to the rooms that bespeaks a grandeur well and truly lost. Toller is a caretaker for an institution that few seem to have use for or interest in.
Ethan Hawke gives quite possibly the greatest performance of his career as Toller. He wields tremendous pathos with his subdued mannerisms and rigid way of holding himself. There is a huge compassion for his parishioners and a great disdain for those who do not share his concerns, all hidden behind an immovable exterior that recalls Gary Oldman’s George Smiley. Starting the film as a wounded man hiding a great tragedy he becomes ever more unpredictable as his world becomes darker and darker. Though pushed to extremes, Hawke never strains credibility, his outbursts are rare and startling.
There’s a stillness and a patience to the pacing of the film. Early in the film there’s an oppressive silence to every scene, broken only by the softly spoken characters and an ever present clock, quietly ticking unseen. As Toller’s mind becomes more fixated on the extreme, an electronic drone become pervasive.
Writer-Director Paul Schrader has often focused on the troubled minds of loners, most famously perhaps in his screenplay for Taxi Driver. First Reformed is an interesting companion piece to Taxi Driver. Both concern men disillusioned with their role in society and greatly sickened by the world around them. But whilst Travis Bickle is a trained army veteran who takes up arms against the evils he perceives, Toller is a stoic man of God who is far more likely to internalise his grievances. It’s a journey of self-destruction aside from anything else.
Like Bickle, Toller keeps a journal which forms the narration of the film and offers insight into his doubts and fears. However there’s an interesting aspect of self-loathing associated with this particular confessional. Toller plans to destroy the diary after it as served its purpose, though that purpose is never directly stated. He often tears pages out or scrutinises sentences he has just written. Confession brings him no peace, only further anguish. An extreme act that occurs early in the film only happens because an unstable man discovers that his inner darkness has been witnessed by others.
Much is to be made of the ending, which may well frustrate some. The film so gradually introduces it’s more fantastical elements and is otherwise so grounded in naturalism that some may find the suspension of disbelief a challenge. However, as an exploration of a man’s spiritual journey the film is immaculately on point. The ending feels abrupt but is more and more satisfying on reflection. This is a film that will sit with you and reveal itself gradually.
First Reformed is a compelling slow-burn journey into darkness. It is a timeless tale of the battle within man’s soul, but also an urgently contemporary treatise on the state of the soul in the current climate. It’s unpredictable and unforgettable.