When I last watched Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ which was also penned by Paul Schrader, I thought to myself about what it was that Jesus Christ himself had intended with his own teachings that have only been twisted around to perform acts of evil across the globe. I open this review bringing that up, because there was one point of my life in which I was a devoted Roman Catholic, but my life has only been questioning what good has it truly done for me if I cannot ever find myself in a sense of solace. From watching Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, I was only wondering to myself what has it truly felt to devote your own life to something that you would only go on to question over time – it was the spiritual connection that I had not witnessed from a Schrader-penned film in a long while. And from watching this film, I felt that maybe there was still something important to my life that could have been defined by those moments in which I had ever felt myself as being more devoted than I know I really feel that I am. And I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it the moment since I had stepped out from watching First Reformed; but for all I know this may be Paul Schrader’s best directorial effort in quite some time.
Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain who serves at a small church in upstate New York, one who has been questioning his faith ever since the death of his son. In the opening moments of the film, we already feel that sort of connection can be made between what he feels and what he experiences as he writes down in complete privacy his daily thoughts, trying to piece together what good his life has done for him being as devout as he is. Within these moments, you already see what it is that a filmmaker like Paul Schrader is able to create at perhaps some of his very best; the effects of suppressed trauma on the way in which one chooses to live their lives devoted to a certain lifestyle. These complications are further troubled by frequent visitations by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), whose husband is an unstable radical environmental activist whose beliefs only end up putting those of Reverend Toller to the test. Within the guise of a thriller what Paul Schrader creates from First Reformed is a film that tests the limits to which one can let their devotion to their faith control their lives as much as they please and thus what we have here is arguably Schrader at some of his most spiritual ever since his own penmanship of The Last Temptation of Christ.
The memories of having grown up with a life devoted to Roman Catholicism are not very distant from where I am today. But Schrader seems content with where he stands about content with what it is that he wishes to say about the influence of said belief systems within one’s own life. Schrader’s world is one that is dictated by violence, because there are two extremes coming at odds with one another – but because of the lack of a middle ground, it feels almost impossible to live peacefully. This is a film of conflicting ideals trying to find a sense of peace with one another, but also wants to ensure that they know the best is coming for the future. But as I was sitting there, during a sequence in which Reverend Toller was preaching the word of the Lord to those who have attended the First Reformed church at where he served, what had only struck me since then was the small changes in his routine after every meeting with Mary. Inside, you already feel his madness as it is about to explode into something more.
You already feel everything is reflected perfectly from Ethan Hawke’s performance, for he is at the center of a conflict that is built upon spiritual turmoil and a corrupted world. Every second of his life, he already sees that there is no one around himself that he can trust anymore, and it sends him into this downward spiral as he is waiting for God to answer his own prayers – but even he knows that this is not what he can spend the rest of his life doing. In his diary, he is calling for help, but no one can read these cries. And thus what you have is not only one of the year’s most moving performances, you also have a career best from Ethan Hawke, for inside of his suffering he is not alone. But Schrader puts you into his own eyes and you begin to ask yourself about the way in which our world is moving, as reflected perfectly in a surreal sequence together with Amanda Seyfried, in which they fly over the world as we know it – in a state of danger. The film has never let go of this message to uncompromising results, but it is this scene where you truly feel like you’re only getting a grasp of where everything is going.
From watching First Reformed it’s not hard to feel so at a distance from how cold everything is, but it fits perfectly to reflect the pessimistic nature in which our world is consistently moving. It works because you already feel Schrader coming right for how religious devotion is not truly going to help us find peace inside a world on the brink of an apocalypse. But we also cannot live in such a world if all we move by are the extremes on both ends of the belief system, for we know that they are the most vocal in our world today. Is this how we want our future generations to remember us by? Is this really the world that we know will be suitable for the future? We are living in a world inside the brink of an internal chaos, and Schrader opens our eyes to something newfound. But as the ending would show, even then we still have some hope – it can still find us even in the darkest moments.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via A24.
Directed by Paul Schrader
Screenplay by Paul Schrader
Produced by Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray
Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 113 minutes