The writer behind great and iconic films ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ has, it’s fair to say, had quite a run of middling to poor releases but this recent drama has gained lots of attention and acclaim. It’s a slow-burning watch that sheds light on Paul Schrader’s quality scripting of central figures facing conflict.
Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at the First Reformed church in New York, a building soon facing its 250th anniversary. In the build up to this, Toller begins keeping track of his thoughts in a journal for a year. He also gets asked by church-goer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to help counsel her husband Michael, who is becoming isolated through his strong views about global warming.
In contrast to what a lot of people seem to be saying, I found the first 90 minutes or so of the film to be the strongest. The final 20 are indeed out there moments and give the movie a bold spiritual identity, but I liked the gentile almost unnerving pace of watching the reverend’s character being set up and then dismantled as his paths and beliefs cross with Michael.
This conflict of belief makes for an engrossing watch and Schrader keeps the majority of scenes in a static, square aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This screening gives the film a vaguely claustrophobic feel, his decision to have little-to-no non-diegetic sound also adds a theatricality to the movie, as if they’re playing out these unexpected turn of events on n intimate stage. It’s only as the final minutes arrive that the camera becomes more animated, circling around characters and moving more than it had been, this works with the dramatic interpretative ending and makes the choices of Toller that much more elevated.
‘First Reformed’ does have transcendent moments which have us literally floating through the beauty of Mother Earth and the consequent destruction it bears, thanks to the actions of the human race but it’s this moment that the weighty climate change theme becomes too on the nose. However a scene between Toller and Michael discussing the horrors of pollution, deforestation etc is brilliant; it’s fuelled with bitterness from Michael and struggle from Toller as he worries for the future and questions his faith.
Amanda Seyfried excels in a turn as a grief-stricken wife bearing a child. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she’s called Mary, as Seyfried plays a comforting welcome presence to the toils of Toller’s journey. Their pairing certainly takes unpredictable turns but she and Hawke act the binding of their souls well enough to almost forgive how annoyingly the film took me out of the story by the end. Ethan Hawke is quite hypnotising as this pastor facing near Travis Bickle levels of anguish. He never over eggs the performance, ensuring the subtlety of Toller gives him that shaky edge of instability and his problems become a believable oil slick on his life.
If you don’t like slow films…or like Trump, you don’t believe that climate change is a thing then this emphatically underlined story of faith, loss and a parable for the modern era with politics and global warming, is not for you. Aside from a hugely disappointing ending, this is a film that’s thought provoking and will stick with me.