Paul Schrader’s latest film takes after others in his screenwriting repertoire – including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull – in being a close-up look at a tumultuous character. In the director’s chair, the American proves that he can combine this sensitivity for the written word with a profound grasp of the visual.
First Reformed charts the trials and tribulations of pastor Toller (Ethan Hawke) in the period leading up to the reconsecration of his parish church. As his house of prayer receives a new lick of paint, the protagonist himself suffers his own decomposing interior. The feature recalls Bergman’s Winter Light, no doubt a great companion piece about faith being tested in troubled times.
This is a movie told by faces. Close up images of Hawke and his castmates in lengthy conversations are mesmerising. This severe style suits the austerity of the churches, granting much of the picture a chilling sobriety. Schrader, as ever, delivers a finely composed script. Toller’s diary entries, his musings on God and the imposing edifice of his parish build the character’s complexity beautifully.
There are few clichés here, with a great deal of incidental music stripped away. Hawke is the constant focus of the audience’s attention. This is a weighty performance by the actor: quiet, considered and deeply powerful. He simmers and boils with the same strength and commitment that will not have you always liking Toller, but perpetually wanting to love him.
Where this film teeters a little is in some questionable incongruities and directorial choices. Had it kept its understatement throughout, First Reformed – the movie and its message alike – would have been strengthened. Still, the feature addresses social and environmental issues in a timely manner with an empathic call for a resurgent humanity. First and foremost, however, this work of cinema is a titanic character study that will sit comfortably among Schrader’s other achievements.
First Reformed is released nationwide on 13th July 2018.
Watch the trailer for First Reformed here: