What will life be like in 2050? It’s a concept contemplated in ‘First Reformed’ - will the earth be a doomed desolate wasteland? Will future generations be subject to a spoiled world? But more importantly, would you be prepared to fight - to die - if you thought that it would change the outcome?
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, the ‘Before’ trilogy, ‘The Magnificent Seven’) is the pastor placed in charge of a small tourist church in upstate New York following the death of his son and breakdown of his marriage. He’s approached by the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried, ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’, ‘Gringo’, ‘Les Misérables’), who is concerned about her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, ‘Compliance’). Upon visiting Michael to offer him counsel, Toller realises he’s an environmental activist, with a negative outlook on humanity’s existence, and in crisis over whether he should be bringing a child into this world. Later, Mary discovers a suicide vest in their garage, and begs Toller to dispose of it. When the reverend learns that the biggest beneficiary of his church also happens to be one of the biggest environmental offenders, Toller begins to contemplate Michael’s beliefs as well as his own.
The message throughout this film is certainly one which is at odds with politics in the United States currently - its unwavering and unapologetic stance on environmental issues makes for occasionally bleak viewing, especially paired with the message that extremism is the only valid response to the current situation. It debates the purpose of humanity and the futility of the future, as Toller tries to debate furiously for the beauty of life, whilst struggling below the surface with his own personal demons.
Much of this inner conflict and change comes down to the extreme talent of Ethan Hawke. He plays superbly this gruff, highly intelligent, intangibly broken pastor, yet even with his flaws, invokes an empathy from the audience that, most vitally, carries for the duration of the film. It’s matched perfectly in tone and credulity by Amanda Seyfried, in a defining role for her career - this is a very demure and restrained performance, and certainly one of the most adult roles she’s taken on to date.
Equally as on point as the cast is the direction. Paul Schrader (‘American Gigolo’) tackles this film with unwavering precision. From its sparse opening titles, there’s a deliberate effort to make the viewing of ‘First Reformed’ as uncomfortable as possible. There is no music used throughout, besides infrequent performances by choirs in the story itself, making the film incredibly desolate. It’s shot in a 1.37:1 ratio (the same as the old 4:3 for television), which makes each and every shot extremely claustrophobic. Even more dramatically, there’s nearly no movement of the camera at all - the slow, meticulous cinematography with its fixed shots and harshly symmetrical framing are simultaneously stunning and ominous. Characters walk in and out of frame, sometimes leaving the scene empty, and all too often, you’re left anticipating - dreading, even - what will happen.
There’s a deliberate effort to make the viewing of ‘First Reformed’ as uncomfortable as possible.
Despite the film’s near-pinpoint accuracy, there are a few elements which let it down. The end of the second act does become a little weighed down by contemplation, as Toller decides which path to take. The film is also unafraid to be brutal, and is often graphically confronting, sometimes when least expected, which may deter some audiences. Similarly, the ending is extraordinarily abrupt, and does leave much to your own contemplation. Without spoiling anything, be prepared for this story not to be neatly wrapped up.
For cinema with great impact, ‘First Reformed’ is an impressive experience. With the dedication shown by Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, and Paul Schrader’s intensely focused direction and screenplay, this is an ominous contemplation on faith that stretches far beyond the realm of religion.