Revolving around an aggressively subtle, nuanced and pained performance by Ethan Hawke, First Reformed is far from revolutionary in its narrative. However, it possesses a visceral script and fantastic performances by key actors inhabiting three-dimensional characters in addition to an unexpected eco-concern plot element that grows in importance as the film patiently moves forward.
The film takes cues from the tranquil art-films of recent years, with little camera movement and a slow pace. Like some of these films, it utilises a the ‘Academy Ratio’, a near square image that was used in the first half of last century, before wide-screen became the norm. This presentation effectively creates a claustrophobic mood which is also reflected by the repressed character of Hawke’s Father Toller, the father of a small church that is approaching its 250-year anniversary. This style could also suggest a longing for the Hollywood of old by the director, where drama such as this was standard fare.
This mood is compounded by the architecture of the church itself. Having stood for 250 years, this is believable as the architecture of the church is far from modern. Its memorable yet simple design almost creates a character out of a building. The inside of the building doesn’t look much younger, even containing a trapdoor hidden by a pew, its purpose to aid slaves who were fleeing north.
The underplayed desperation of the film and especially Ethan Hawke’s convincing portrayal of a priest is linked to the deserted nature of the church: we rarely if ever see anyone but Toller on the grounds outside, while inside Toller’s flock is small and a far cry from filling the pews. After 250 years, the purportedly oldest, continually standing Church in the US has outlived its relevance.
An extension of this is the aforementioned tried but true narrative, in which Father Toller attempts to ward off a lapse of faith, changing views about the world around him, while suffering from health problems and a general apathy to the world. Perhaps the Church has outlived its purpose in his life too. His past is filled with pain, which is a constant jagged cloud that hangs over him. Toller served in the military and lost a loved one, an incident he blames himself for. We don’t get to know much about these events, but we don’t need to. The pain is written on Toller’s face, the way he walks, the way he talks. This is a fantastic character study of a priest who is truly lost.
Toller’s feeling of pain leads to him creating a diary, one that is hand-written so that he can see each mistake, each word he has crossed out. His narration of the diary provides the soundtrack. This narration also serves to inform us of Toller’s deteriorating mental health, much like his physical health. He ignores a possible illness, punishing himself.
Toller’s apathy is erased when he realises that ecological problems surround his town. He recognises that the money funding the Church’s celebration of 250 years is coming from a company that features in the top five of factories creating pollution.
Not only does this give the film a sense of drive when needed, it also propels Toller as a character, his mental health plummeting further as we see him barely able to maintain the mask of health he has developed. He loses some of the grace and poise that he began with, and his interest in the company funding the celebration turns into an obsession, culminating in an unpredictable climax.
Toller’s loss of faith, the 250 year old church that is more of a tourist attraction than a church, the ecological concerns; is this film a political statement from Schrader, suggesting that the Church is as harmful to the planet as greenhouse gasses? It is hard to say, but First Reformed is a unique and compelling film that provides an extremely close and detailed look into the suffering of a man whose profession is to help people, yet despite the pain he feels, he has no intention of helping himself.
A full sixer, and easily Hawke’s best performance.
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