First Reformed (2017)
Directed by: Paul Schrader | 113 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger, Van Hansis, Krystina Alabado, Bill Hoag, Elanna White, Kristin Villanueva, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Frank Murray, Sue Jean Kim, Delano Montgomery, Satchel Eden Bell
42 years after ‘Taxi Driver’, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader is back with a film about a troubled loner. The loner on duty is Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the spiritual leader of the First Reformed church community. The beautiful opening shot, in which the camera moves towards the church at an excruciatingly slow pace, immediately creates an ominous feeling that lingers over the film for a long time. The viewer undoubtedly enters religious territory, but so slowly that it seems to be accompanied by some reluctance. The pastor’s pained voice-over sounds in the background. The question with which he wrestles: does today’s perverted world still offer room for faith?
The number of visitors to his church is low. If he is allowed to receive more than ten devotees at his services, it is a busy day for the pastor. But the people who come every Sunday are faithful. So is Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who comes to the pastor after a service to ask advice for her doomsayer of a boyfriend. The man doubts whether their unborn daughter has a place in this, in his eyes cursed, world. A world tormented by natural disasters. Created by humans. As Toller tries to help the couple, while confronting his own demons, he is bullied by the overarching church association over the 250th anniversary of his rectory.
The problems soon overwhelm him. While his physical condition, he suffers from far-reaching stomach problems, is rapidly deteriorating, the mental haze before his eyes is also increasing. The fear takes over. Fear of his neighbours, the faith and the progress of the world. In short, he starts to doubt the meaning of existence. The pleasure with which he used to try to answer questions about life and faith is slowly fading away. The holy book is becoming less and less imitated by the people. And with his interpretation of the Bible, he also gets less response from his colleagues. It is all about making money or increasing political influence. The Word itself is secondary. The wall of inability grows higher and higher. Answers harder to find. Slowly Toller loses his faith. The health of the planet, meanwhile, is steadily deteriorating.
‘First Reformed’ effectively portrays Toller’s decline. Despite the many, otherwise strong, dialogues, Schrader conducts an exciting imagery. For example, the film regularly seeks out the close-up. Together with the beautiful play of light, Toller’s dark state of mind is nicely palpable. But the further the pastor derails, the further the film loses track. Because of the many subtleties in the character of the cleric, not all his motivations can be interpreted equally well. As a result ‘First Reformed’ just lacks the intensity that ‘Taxi Driver’ has.