“Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
“Who can know the mind of God?”
Director Paul Schrader’s newest release, First Reformed, follows Richard Toller (Ethan Hawke), the reverend of a “souvenir” Dutch Reform church in up-state New York. Toller decides to commit to an experiment on his own accord. This experiment consists of recording an honest, hand-written diary entry every day of his thoughts and daily routines for an entire year- after which he will destroy the journal.
However, the entries in Toller’s journal become increasingly worrying following a lengthy discussion Toller has with Michael (Phillip Ettinger), a deeply troubled environmentalist, who only speaks with the Reverend at the request of Michael’s partner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Mary worries for Mike and wants him to speak with Toller to help ease his disparity with the tortured world we live in despite his lack of faith in God. When discussing all the potential environmental issues of the world that they will live to see, Mike claims that he doesn’t want Mary to birth a child into this destructive world, a not so subtle message for Mary to abort it. Toller’s faith in God, and humanity as a whole, is threatened by the ideas of Mike and his cause. His notions become conflicted and so begins a slowly burning fury in Toller, a disintegration of his initial self and an exploration of a new one.
Much like Paul Schrader’s writing efforts on Taxi Driver, Toller embodies a more muted Travis Bickle persona. There’s an underlying distaste for people in Toller, made clear with his frustrated interactions with his ex-wife, Esther. She works as the choir-leader of the First Reformed’s parent company Abundant Life, a much more successful and sophisticated place of praise which perhaps Toller is envious of. Toller and Esther ended their relationship due to the sudden death of their son, who passed away in Iraq after Toller encouraged hm to enlist. It’s clear that this loss is still hurting each of them, Toller especially, and ultimately is the reason why Michael’s disparity with the world resonates so personally with him as the film continues its spiralling self-destruction.
This film is important for several reasons. To me, its messages lies not in keeping faith in humanity but to reflect on humanity. Reflecting on what we, as a society, are doing to the world and refusing to think about the consequences of our actions. Its political themes are hard-hitting for certain but First Reformed for me, refuses to push any agendas on its audiences. Whether this reflection has any knock-on effect, is completely dependent on the audience member. Much like what Schrader said during an interview, the interpretation an audience member gets from First Reformed is just as valid as the next one. People who are not used to watching art-hose cinema may only see this film at face-value.
To me, First Reformed is an excellent thriller. It sunk its teeth into me and even now still refuses to loosen its jaw. Ethan Hawke gives the best performance of his career, the cinematography (that is shot in 1.33 aspect ratio) is impeccable and the overall narrative is faultless and relevant to world we currently live in. I would recommend this film for people who have a keen interests for disturbing art-house cinema, and especially for people who are fans of the films A24 have already been a part of (e.g. Hereditary, The Witch etc.)
First Reformed in available in select cinemas around the UK. Don’t miss it! Here’s the trailer.