First Reformed (2018). Photo: A24

First Reformed (2018)

"Courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers. I can't know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself." - Reverend Toller

Like most Paul Schrader films, First Reformed sticks with you. The philosophical and religious viewpoints expressed in the film are intriguing, and the performances are mesmerizing. It is a lot to digest. Most importantly, the spiritual drama is a tour de force of what Schrader defined as "transcendental style in film." First Reformed, for my money, is Schrader's crowning cinematic achievement.

First Reformed is the story of the Reverend Ernst Toller (played by Ethan Hawke), a man driven to the cloth in the wake of tragedy. His son has died in Iraq (after he was encouraged to enlist by him), and his marriage did not survive the aftermath. Given a tiny, albeit historical landmark of a parish in upstate New York by the megachurch Abundant Life, he struggles with inner demons, including alcoholism. To calm his nerves, Reverend Toller decides to keep a diary of his struggles of faith.

Reverend Toller is approached by and agrees to counsel a young married couple, Mary and Michael. Mary is pregnant, and Michael feels tormented by the responsibility of bringing a child into a world ravaged by climate change. Everyone of conscience in First Reformed seems to be going through spiritual conflict. Schrader deftly brings all of these pieces together with restraint and methodical precision. First Reformed may be Schraders best script, which is saying a lot, considering this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ.

First Reformed uses all of the techniques Schrader discussed in his 1972 book "Transcendental Style In Film": static frame, slow takes, minimal coverage, offset edits, and (except for two pivotal scenes), a visual flatness. The camera is there to document the dark torment enveloping the Reverend, capturing the events as they happen in slow, real-time. Even First Reformed's aspect ratio (1.33:1) boxes the film into a form of flatness, taking away the distant corners of widescreen cinematography.

This transcendental style requires much from the actors, as they must deliver the emotion of First Reformed without the usual Hollywood trickery. Ethan Hawke takes the challenge and runs with it, a fantastic performance from an actor hitting new heights. It is a tragedy that Hawke failed to garner an Academy Award nomination for his work (he won the Independent Spirit Award for this portrayal). Amanda Seyfriend and Cedric Kyles (better known as Cedric the Entertainer) also are fantastic in this spiritual drama.

First Reformed is that rare film that adheres to a uniquely subtle cinematic style yet delivers a powerful punch. A rich, textured screenplay by Paul Schrader, aided by career-best performances by Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, make this a remarkable film. (A-)

Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer), Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston
Genres: Drama

Photo: A24

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