By Casey Campbell
First Reformed is the thrilling culmination of writer and director Paul Schrader’s career, told with equal parts ferocity and temperance. It’s a story of one’s devotion to a calling, and the sometimes dangerous weight it holds over you. Schrader’s latest is a methodical and meditative work that sits with you long after it’s sharp cut to credits.
Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller, an alcoholic with a bleak past. Despite that, he appears spritely and pleasant. He goes out of his way to help those in his community that seek his guidance, like Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her troubled hyper-environmentalist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger).
Schrader isn’t known for writing simple characters—take Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, or Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull as examples. Yet, in First Reformed, Schrader posits Reverend Toller as a quiet and reserved man. He’s seen keeping his small historic church tidy and writing in a journal. He’s even seen having a good relationship with the preachers at the mega-church across town. But when Michael infects Toller with a newfound appreciation for the Earth—God’s creation, after all—the reverend faces a crisis of faith.
The film lacks subtlety when it comes to environmentalism, but that’s not inherently a flaw. In fact, the way in which it’s importance is made paramount very much informs the story of a man understanding his faith. Without him first being metaphorically beaten over the head with the importance of our environment and the future of our world, Reverend Toller would have continued on his disinterested descent into obscurity – furthered by the mega-church, and his dwindling numbers.
Don’t let the church-going, environmentalist leaning reverend lead sway you, First Reformed is a top-notch thriller. Schrader slowly notches the tension, from the first silent lingering shot of the church to a dizzying finale only the director of Dog Eat Dog could helm. There are edge-of-your-seat moments, gross-out actions, and dangerous motivations found throughout, and the result is both beautifully distant and gloriously fun—if your definition of fun verges on the deranged, that is.
By shooting the film in 1.37:1 ratio—also known as Academy ratio—First Reformed manages to be both intimate and cold – fitting for such an unorthodox movie. The photography is often static, allowing the audience to focus on the characters who often just sit and speak with one another.
It’s the kind of movie that you should go into with a barebones understanding of what you’re going to see and let it wash over you. The performances are uniformly great, with a uniquely challenging outing from Ethan Hawke, who displays a frightening range from beginning to end. It isn’t a straightforward film, and the end is a head-scratcher, but the entire work is something exciting and fresh.
Overall Grade: A
Originally published at Emertainment Monthly: