‘First Reformed’ Review

Tommy Powers, Writer

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Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is one of the most important films of the decade. Schrader is most famous for his efforts as a screenwriter, particularly his collaborations with Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Bringing Out the Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ. Because of his status as a screenwriter, Schrader’s career as a director has naturally had a hard time living up to his screenwriting success. Additionally, his films are abrasive, dark and lacking in pop appeal. Consequently, much of his directorial work has only reached the fringes of the public canon.

However, because of the relatively serious and artistic nature of his films, Schrader has gained extensive clout from his contemporaries within the film industry. As a result, he has been able to direct well-known actors such as Harvey Keitel, Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe. Schrader’s reputation in the film community helped him to attain a strong cast for First Reformed, including Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer and relative newcomer Philip Ettinger.


Ethan Hawke’s character, Reverend Ernst Toller, is the centerpiece of the film, and the role is a challenging one. Hawke’s character is complex, as he experiences frequent mood swings and struggles to maintain the high standards of his public image as a preacher. Hawke’s performance is remarkable. At times, Hawke completely commands the screen with intensity, but he is subdued when the role demands it. Hawke’s line delivery is very natural, proving his experience as an actor.


The lens through which the story is told is unique. Hawke’s character outlines many of the goings-on of the film through entries in a diary, which are used for voice over narration throughout the film. This concept is borrowed from the 1951 French film Diary of a Country Priest, a film that Schrader has expressed admiration for on numerous occasions. These narrations offer a valuable insight into his character, and the fact that they come from a diary indicates an honesty that may not be present in a run-of-the-mill voiceover. Toller’s diary entries describe his isolation from society, his true feelings about the characters surrounding him, his alcoholism and sickness.


Despite having to act in the shadow of Hawke, the supporting cast of First Reformed performs well. The most notable performance aside from Hawke comes from Philip Ettinger, who had hardly any previous credits entering this film. Ettinger plays the role of Michael Mansana, a bright but misguided man that gradually falls into a manic obsession with climate change issues. Michael experiences similar feelings of isolation and depression to Reverend Toller, but their ideologies are on different sides of the spectrum. During a key scene, Michael and Reverend Toller have a discussion about climate change. It is a fascinating scene, presenting both sides of the argument in an intelligent and reasonable manner (to be clear, Toller is not a climate change denier, he simply does not believe that it is as urgent of an issue as it is made out to be). It is refreshing to see an issue as volatile as this treated in such a nuanced way.


A particularly notable example:


Michael: Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?


Toller: Who can know the mind of God?


Throughout the film, this discussion and begins to take an effect on Toller’s psyche, especially when he finds out that his church receives funding from a local industrialist named Edward Balq, whose company is alleged to be a major polluter. Toller begins to share Michael’s sentiment toward climate change issues, and over time his views become increasingly radical. This gradual radicalization comes to a head as an important anniversary event at the church approaches, which promises the attendance of Edward Balq himself. The film builds toward this anniversarial celebration at the church, and the foreboding event seems to haunt Toller throughout the film. In addition to its parallels to Toller’s radicalization (both grow at similar rates), the church’s anniversary celebration is also responsible for much of Toller’s dreaded interactions with other people – Toller values solitude – and because of the demands of the event, Toller must pay more attention to the general upkeep of the aging church.


Another vital character in First Reformed is Michael’s wife, Mary Mansana (played by Amanda Seyfried, of Mean Girls fame). She reaches out to Reverend Toller early in the film out of concern for her husband Michael’s radical views and isolation from society. While discussing these concerns with Reverend Toller, the two become close friends very quickly. Toller’s interactions with Mary are very definitively juxtaposed with his lonely days and nights maintaining the church. They go out together to ride bikes, walk in the park and talk. After awhile, it becomes clear that Mary is virtually the only significant connection to humanity that Reverend Toller has.


Mary’s presence is important to Toller not only from an mental and emotional standpoint, but also in terms of physical health, because his bike rides and walks with her are his only form of exercise. Reverend Toller has dreadful health habits that only get worse over the course of the film. He is severely alcoholic, drinking full bottles of hard liquor late at night while he writes in his diary. He develops a stomach disease that is suspected to be cancer (although this is never actually confirmed, as Toller avoids returning to the doctor after his initial tests), and as a result of his subsequent stomach pains, his appetite is minimal.


In its plot, the film follows a fairly traditional tragic structure. Although he has some deep-seated psychological issues stemming from his divorce and the death of his son in the Iraq War, Reverend Toller begins the film as a good-spirited, hardworking and upstanding priest. He begins a downward spiral as soon as he is exposed to Michael’s revolutionary views, which are simply too violent for Toller’s fragile psyche. From that point, various events in Toller’s life begin to snowball, including issues with the church organ, being badgered by a former romantic interest and Toller’s health issues. As these events unfold, Toller draws back further from society and turns only to Mary and the bottle for solace.


An interesting moral dilemma from First Reformed is whether the violent uprising that Michael and Reverend Toller desire is morally defensible. The film provides such a balanced sentiment towards this point that it is left only to the interpretation of each viewer. It is to the film’s credit that this point is left up for debate, as this issue is complicated enough to demand a nuanced discourse.

This is what elevates First Reformed to the status of one of the most important films of the decade: it’s a harrowing tragedy that explores human behavior in an advanced way, but more importantly it demands a nuanced discourse on one of the most volatile issues of our time.

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