|Posted by Nick Spake on May 24, 2018 at 12:00 AM|
Over four decades ago, Paul Schrader forever changed cinema when he wrote “Taxi Driver.” While Martin Scorsese’s direction often soaks up most of the credit, Schrader deserves just as much recognition for crafting one of the 20th century’s most gripping character studies. “First Reformed,” which Schrader both wrote and directed, has the essence of a modern “Taxi Driver” with a touch of "The Last Temptation of Christ." It’s not as good as those films and chances are it won’t leave behind the same impact. Schrader’s film evokes many of the same feelings, however, taking the audience on an unsettling, understated, and uncompromising journey they won’t soon forget.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of his most powerful performances as Toller, a former military chaplain whose son died in war. Being the one who convinced his son to join the armed forces, Toller is already riddled with guilt and grief over his death. Although he’s clearly suffering from a fatal ailment, he’s reluctant to seek medical help. Toller has for the most part cut himself off from having meaningful relationships, only occasionally speaking to a fellow pastor (Cedric the Entertainer) and a well-meaning yet nosy choir conductor named Esther (Victoria Hill). This man of the Lord only becomes more conflicted as he grows closer to a pregnant woman named Mary, beautifully played by Amanda Seyfried. She asks Toller to council her paranoid husband, who’s convinced that the environment is beyond repair. Unfortunately, Toller not only fails her husband, but also slowly comes to believe that mankind has doomed the world God gave us.
Environmentally conscious films tend to range from well-intentioned to unbearably self-righteous. “First Reformed” isn’t without its preachy moments and can at times be a bit too on the nose, especially when it comes to tackling big corporations. More often than not, though, the film avoids the clichés you might expect. This isn’t a movie that tries to provide an easy solution to a global problem. Rather, it’s about a man desperately searching for answers, but finding nothing but uncertainty around every corner.
Like Travis Bickle, Toller simply wants to fit into something greater. The more he struggles to find a purpose, though, Toller starts to take extreme measures in hopes of fixing a timely issue. A more straightforward film would’ve just made Toller a one-dimensional martyr. Instead, he emerges an incredibly complex protagonist. You could argue that he’s a Christ-like figure willing to sacrifice his life for the greater good, but he could also be seen as a deeply troubled individual on the verge of committing suicide.
In terms of style, Schrader keeps things subtle and intimate with a tight aspect ratio. The film isn’t without its surreal moments that catch the audience off-guard, however, most notably a psychedelic flying sequence reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski.” The ending in particular is going to have a lot of people scratching their heads. With nothing spelled out and a slow pace, “First Reformed” admittedly isn’t for everyone. For those familiar with Schrader’s work, though, you’ll definitely walk away with something to think about.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars