First Reformed: A question of faith

There’s an immense freedom in small, independent filmmaking that comes across on screen in high quality art-house cinema.

Writer/director Paul Schrader has spent a lifetime fighting against modern Hollywood convention. His latest film, “First Reformed,” is a calculated, uncompromising examination of inner turmoil slowly churning in a stoic man of faith and represents the pinnacle of his directorial career.

If you’ve never heard of Schrader, it’s probably because you associate his most famous work — the screenplay for “Taxi Driver” — with director Martin Scorsese or star Robert DeNiro.

“First Reformed” harkens back to the 1976 psychological thriller, almost unintentionally serving as a companion piece or coda.
Slow and deliberate, Schrader composes a piece of cinema that will arrest some audiences and disenchant others. It’s a film that constantly asks characters, and by proxy its audience, “can God forgive us what we’ve done to His creation?”

Part theological wrestling, part existential crisis, Schrader’s powerful slow-burn of a film follows former military chaplain Ernst Toller, a somewhat broken man still mourning the loss of his son in Iraq and the subsequent end of his marriage.

To process his grief, he catalogues his every thought in a small journal he keeps while serving a rural “tourist church” in upstate New York. His world is forever changed when a young pregnant woman in his parish asks him to counsel her eco-obsessed, depressed husband.

“First Reformed” doubles as the name of the church featured prominently in the film, but it also aptly describes the weary pastor shepherding it.

Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke gives the most dazzling performance of his career as Toller, putting up a facade of strength for those around him while slowly crumbling inside mentally. The quiet desperation within Hawke’s Toller appears subtlety at first and builds gradually throughout “First Reformed” in a beautiful crescendo of pain, grief and self-doubt.

Portrayals of men of the cloth are rarely this complex and it’s only upon leaving the theater that the true impact of Hawke’s searing work takes control.

Hawke takes great care to ensure that audiences understand just enough about Toller’s physical and mental anguish, while leaving events in the film open to interpretation. Schrader insists viewers decide on the meaning of “First Reformed” as a painter would for abstract art with Toller’s inner psyche being the canvas. The film showcases the unique synergy between writer, actor and director with Hawke melting into another world flawlessly.

The tiny cast has a number of solid actors filling the minute details of Toller’s life, but two familiar faces stand out among the crowd.

Amanda Seyfried wavers terrifically between coquette and demure housewife as the pregnant wife of a man Toller counsels. Hawke and Seyfried excel at this distant, yet magnetic symbiosis that draws and repels Toller and the young wife.

It’s an wonderful contrast with the excellent Cedric Kyles playing against type as head of a mega-church that sponsors Toller’s small parish. In limited screen time, Kyles transforms into a “faith-as-a-commodity” style pastor without feeling caricature, which is especially astonishing given his film history as Cedric the Entertainer.

Visually, Schrader frames “First Reformed” in 1.37 ratio, a near square picture that squeezes the audience’s collective eye and forces closer examination of smaller, nuanced details. A twitch of the eye, curl of the mouth, every choice made by the actors or by Schrader himself is put under the microscope.

From the first frame, it’s a visual pronouncement that “First Reformed” isn’t a typical drama and refuses to play by cinematic convention. Each moment delicately cultivated by Schrader is artistically captured by cinematographer Alexander Dynan whose visual palette is largely as demure as Toller, yet heightens for effect as the script and performances require.

Though a mid-summer release is often far too early for serious awards consideration, Hawke is just too good as Toller not to be a serious threat for a Best Actor next spring. It’s a poignant, gripping performance that should still resonate long after “First Reformed” leaves the big screen. Accolades for Schrader, Seyfried, Kyles and the film as a whole are more likely in smaller ceremonies with a limited pool of contenders, such as the Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Engaging from start to finish despite its slow-burn pace, “First Reformed” will likely be one of 2018’s best independently made films with a career-best effort from Hawke that needs to be seen on the big screen.

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