Paul Schrader’s new film “First Reformed” is a calm but intense experience you will not forget easily. Intensely driven by its lonely hero’s moral and spiritual conflict, it gives us a number of sobering moments to impress you with their considerable emotional intensity, and the overall result deserves to be mentioned along with Schrader’s best works such as “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985) and “Affliction” (1997).
Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, the minister of the First Reformed church in Snowbridge, New Yok. Since his devastating personal loss which happened several years ago, Ernst has strictly stuck to his stoic solitary life, and the early scenes of the movie phlegmatically present the small and big details of his daily life at the church. We see him presiding over a church service attended by a very small group of local people. We see him talking a bit with his deacon. And we see him retreating to his spartan private place at night and then pouring out his thoughts and feelings into a diary which he plans to keep for one year. As watching him writing his diary, you may be reminded of many of Schrader’s similarly lonely heroes such as Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (1976).
On one day, one of Ernst’s church members approaches to him for help. The person in question is a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), and she has been concerned about her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a former radical-environmentalist who recently returned after being released from a prison in Canada. She wants Ernst to have some talk with Michael, so Ernst later goes to Michael and Mary’s residence, and Michael makes a lengthy argument about why he does not want their baby to born into the world. Despaired and frustrated about the ongoing global climate disruption and the lack of social efforts to stop it, he thinks it is not right to have their baby live in the world which has become worse day by day in his opinion, and he has seriously considered abortion even though his wife is against that.
Ernst tries as much as he can for persuading Michael to change his mind, but it eventually turns out that there is nothing he can do for Michael. Like the minister hero of Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light” (1963), Ernst is a helpless man full of doubt and conflict, and he finds himself more shaken and conflicted than before as musing more on what is exchanged between him and Michael. After coming to realize a certain fact associated with his church, he cannot help but become more obsessed with the hypocrisy of the system he belongs to, and his friend/superior Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) senses something wrong from him.
Meanwhile, probably because she needs emotional support and comfort, Mary approaches closer to Ernst than before, but he is not particularly willing to give what she wants from him, and he also remains distant to Esther (Victoria Hill) as before, a colleague who is clearly interested in coming closer to Ernst with love and comfort. During one brief but hurtful scene which is apparently influenced by one of memorable scenes in “Winter Light”, he cruelly rejects Esther’s sincere act as telling her how much he dislikes everything about her, and that only leads to more misery and loneliness for him.
In addition, his physical state is more deteriorated than before. It is quite clear that he needs to get medical treatment as soon as possible, but he only has his body and mind driven into more instability as a sort of punishment. In the end, he decides to do something quite drastic, and the movie accordingly becomes more intense than before while accompanied with the atmospheric score by Brian Williams, who is also known as Lustmord.
Even around that narrative point, the movie keeps sticking to its plain, austere storytelling approach, and Schrader and his cinematographer Alexander Dynan constantly hold our attention through their formal visual choice. Shot in the screen ratio of 1.37:1, the movie usually observes Ernst and other characters from the distance, and Dynan’s camera steadily maintains its static position throughout the film except a few certain scenes including the one where Ernst comes to have a sort of spiritual experience with Mary later in the story.
As the intense center of the movie, Hawke gives another excellent performance in his long, distinguished career. Looking paler and gaunter than before, he subtly conveys the thoughts and feelings churning and boiling behind his character’s detached façade, and he also shows considerable commitment when his character is pushed further to the extreme around the finale.
Around Hawke, several notable performers in the film give good performances as ably supporting him. Amanda Seyfried, who has shown that she can do something more serious than “Mean Girls” (2004) and “Mamma Mia!” (2008), brings some warmth and tenderness to the movie, and Phillip Ettinger is sympathetic as an unhappy man struggling with mounting despair and desperation. While Victoria Hill is effective in her small supporting role, Cedric Kyles, who is also known as Cedric the Entertainer, shows here that he can dial down his comic persona to some degrees, and he holds his own place quite well during his few scenes with Hawke.
With its stark, palpable sense of isolation and conflict enfolding its moody hero, “First Reformed” is another case of ‘the man in a room’ from Schrader, and I admire how his movie firmly sticks to its themes and subjects as generating some powerful scenes to remember. This is surely a tough stuff, but it is definitely worthwhile to watch, and I think it is one of the most significant films of this year.