MOVIE REVIEW: First Reformed

(Image courtesy of A24 Films via

(Image courtesy of A24 Films via

Official selection of the 6th annual Chicago Critics Film Festival


Celebrated writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo) has long been a veteran storyteller on the motif of self-destruction.  Often embodied by a protagonist pursuing actions opposite his or her own values, Schrader’s pensive paths tend to end with purifying violence or excruciating sacrifice.  With A24’s First Reformed, the writer-director has crafted another startling and fascinating cinematic gem on that favored topic.  The escalating tension is phenomenal, guiding heavy lessons and postures, all led by quite possibly the best performance to date from Ethan Hawke.  Discerning audiences will find much to dissect and discuss as they process First Reformed.  

Out of blackness, a metallic cross-topped steeple catches a rising glow first as the pinched 4:3 ratio frame begins to fill with the slow approach of a Dutch Colonial church taking shape out of the increased light.  This is First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, NY and you can cut the solemnity with a knife. It is a patriotic landmark on the heels of its 250th anniversary being treated more like a token tourist attraction than a place of worship by its smattering of patrons, especially against the corporate-backed Abundant Life semi-mega-church nearby.  Equally marginalized is the man in charge. Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain declining in health and even worse in depression after a familial loss.

LESSON #1: WORDS THAT JUSTIFY AND WORDS THAT CONDEMN-- Introducing his current routes, Toller meticulously explains his quest to write out his solitude of thoughts, worries, and reflections as a form of speaking and communication.  He feels this private tome is the closest he can muster to prayer in his dreary state and intends to destroy the journal in a year. Toller’s ever-present and haunting narration of those written words is what outlines and reveals this film’s dread.  This man does not sound strong like one would expect from the job title. His words forces our attention and we wince with every defeated syllable.

Showing his age properly at 47, Hawke takes his immense talent to a whole new level.  Following equally mature and award-worthy work two years ago playing jazz legend Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue, the normally loquacious Gen-X icon finds a different and rigorous register of sternness he has never shown.  What his voiceover excerpts do not already sear on-screen his unraveling mannerisms finish. His edge is our edge and the effect is brilliant.  

Toller begins to counsel a local married couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger of Compliance) expecting their first child.  The calm wife is highly concerned about her husband’s disillusionment caused be the thick indoctrination of their former lifestyle as radical environmental activists.  The man’s tenuous theological and emotional demons fear an unlivable future for his unborn and honestly unwanted child. The woman worries for her safety and sees a good man in Toller.  The pastor finds initially finds exhilaration at the prospect of doing some true helpful work with a wayward soul and not just stewardship of a declining church. That changes when matters get worse.

Tiptoeing dangerously close to being a message film, the underlying social commentary in First Reformed contains staunch stances on environmentalism that sometimes do not mesh with the theological setting in play.  Luckily, the core of crushing personal consternation rises above. When Toller begins entertaining troubling notions and extreme responses from his counseling work, Schader’s film escalates to a third act and denouement that is spellbinding, unnerving, and even (some detrimentally, mind you) trippy.  

LESSON #2: EVEN PASTORS NEED PASTORING-- This is a man who gives help that needs help himself.  His cathartic written documentation displays that need all the way to doubts like “who can know the mind of God.”  Self-medicating with whiskey and other vices, will not help Toller absorb all that he deals with cleanly and precisely as a trusted man of the cloth.  He too is just a man underneath the collar, and quite the haunted one at that. Choosing grace to govern a righteous life can only weather so many troubles.

Shooting with his highest degree of transcendental stylings, Schrader exudes every possible calmness to contain the simmering anxiety in this film’s characters.  Cinematographer Alexander Dynan (a previous Schrader collaborator on Dog Eat Dog) delivers near-perfect framing choices of static and observational shot variety, all edited by Benjamin Rodriguez, Jr. in his feature debut.  Hiding a near absent underscore from industrial musician Brian Williams (better known as Lustmord), First Reformed is a dialogue-centered film of increasing atmosphere.  The pace is the prose. Schrader borrows heavily from the 1951 French film Diary of a Country Priest to create this spiritual and contemplative opus.  His screenplay is one of eloquent balance. The drive towards eerie and intense disquiet is soothed by the reflective words of unnerving feelings that try to make sense of it all.  

LESSON #3: THE FULL EXTENT OF DESPAIR-- Formulating First Reformed’s most overriding emotion, several lofty totems compose the breadth of depression and hopelessness assigned to the Toller character.  By his account, pride is the trait that forms despair, the variable strength of wisdom holds it in place, and courage is the solution to escaping it.  All three of those traits are fascinating and grueling challenges to observe and decompose.