First Reformed

(Schrader, 2018)

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First Reformed is the latest film from veteran writer/director Paul Schrader. Met with overwhelming critical acclaim, First Reformed is only Schrader’s second “fresh” film in the last 20 years (the other is 2002’s Auto Focus). It may have taken him some time, but Schrader’s comeback film is a nuanced masterpiece of independent cinema, bolstered by an outstanding lead performance from Ethan Hawke.

Hawke is a tour de force as Ernst Toller, a disenchanted reverend who is confronted with suicide, environmental destruction, and martyrdom. Toller’s growing cynicism and self-doubt are intoxicating and uncomfortable, something you don’t want to watch but can’t turn away from. While other important characters come and go (Amanda Seyfried’s Mary and Cedric the Entertainer’s Pastor Jeffers), Reverend Toller is present in every single scene, guiding you along his slow crawl to environmental wokeness through diaristic voice over. Hawke’s performance has various levels, all nuanced and all equally captivating. As Toller grows more discontented, he becomes less controlled and more dramatic. It is a slow progression for sure, but a completely rewarding one.

Visually, First Reformed is perfectly simple. Almost every single shot is static— not panning, zooming, or moving in any way. Many scenes are captured in one long take, and many shots linger after the characters have exited the frame. Schrader’s prolonged, stable shots perfectly mirror Toller’s unassuming and contemplative nature, following his journey without actually following him. Schrader gives you time to think after each scene, each shot. This elicited contemplation gives the film a meditative quality— as if we are stepping into the shoes of our pensive protagonist.

A24 continues its grand takeover of independent film and, with movies like these, who can blame them. First Reformed is a visceral and entrancing character study, worthy of your time if you can stomach its deep emotional despair. ★★★★★

David Merkle