If you are the kind of person who pays attention to the distributors of films, then you will be well aware that over the past few years the name A24 has come to represent the highest quality of cinema. Titles such as Hereditary, Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Free Fire, Moonlight and 20th Century Women are just a few of the many, MANY home runs that the company has hit over the past few years. In the same way that I know Pixar is a seal of quality, so is a distribution credit from A24. Now, put that together with Paul Schrader, writer/director of iconic projects like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and we should be in for something special, right?
Yes, absolutely. First Reformed tells the story of Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the Reverend of an historical New York state church who struggles with a crisis of morality and ethics when he is tasked with counselling a depressed, suicidal man who is plagued with anxieties about the ways in which climate change is destroying the earth. The film operates as a tense battle of questioning and consciousness between the faith that Toller holds dear and the ignorance with which he has to contend from many of his peers and superiors. Secretly ill and dealing with a growing dependence on alcohol, the Reverend’s life beings to unravel at a startling rate, forming an attachment not only to the wife (played by Amanda Seyfried) of the man he counselled, but also to the dangerous, extremist methods that were part of his plan.
If you’re looking for a cut and dry narrative that wraps things up with a nice neat bow at the end, you are barking up the wrong tree. First Reformed is an expertly crafted film that roots its audience in harsh, stark reality only to flip expectations and indulge in some more experimental methods and techniques in the final third. As one expects from Paul Schrader, the dialogue is economic, incisive, engrossing and at times tough to take. The picture is very much a film for those who revel in deep character study and introspective performances. It bubbles with tension and knows exactly when to release it with pinpoint accuracy throughout.
Think back to the figure of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a man without any faith, not only from a religious standpoint but from a general life standpoint. A man who sees no hope in the world and decides to take drastic action to remedy it. A direct line of comparison can be made to Reverend Toller in this sense. Even though he is a man whose faith in God never really wavers, there is definitely a break in his perception of the hopefulness of the world. It’s testament to the talent of Schrader that such similar emotions and actions can be authentically injected in to two such seemingly different characters. First Reformed is the kind of film that says more in its silence than it does in its noise, and those kinds of films prove to be excruciating yet captivating cinematic experiences for those who are patient enough to digest them.
As Reverend Toller, Ethan Hawke has laid down an early marker for the Best Actor Oscar at next year’s Academy Awards. Give or take maybe two minutes, he is on screen for every single frame of the movie, and his performance is a masterclass in quiet intensity and anxious foreboding. Much of his excellent work is done in solo scenes, and I think it is an underrated talent to be able to work yourself up to such a level and execute a performance to such a high standard when you have no scene partner to bounce off of. What ever the opposite to chewing the scenery is, Hawke does that, and he does it to captivating effect.
Amanda Seyfried as Mary provides an interesting scene partner for Hawke’s Toller, a younger, more idealistic figure who turns to him for help but whose life circumstances ultimately prove to inspire his own personal downfall. The pair share a deliberately awkward and stifled chemistry, one that only proves to heighten the tension that the film revels in.
A couple of stand out supporting performances are given by Victoria Hill and Cedric Kyles, the former as an ex lover and current friend of Toller’s, concerned for his health both physical and mental, and the latter as Pastor Jeffers, the head of a megachurch with questionable ties to companies who are contributing to the environmental turmoil that begins to consume Toller’s thoughts. Kyles, better known to me and to many as Cedric the Entertainer, shows us a completely different side to his talents. A full on dramatic performance from a stellar comedian is always a great thing to see.
Overall, First Reformed is another triumph for A24 and certainly a triumph for Paul Schrader. The ambiguity of the final third will certainly turn off those who prefer full circle story telling, but in my opinion we shouldn’t be afraid of films that dare to challenge traditional narrative structures and directions. I’ll be shocked if Ethan Hawke doesn’t remain part of the Oscar conversation for months to come.