Inspired by the works of Carl Th. Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Yasujirō Ozu, First Reformed, the latest film by legendary screenwriter and regular Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader (Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ, Mishima, Bringing Out The Dead) is a masterwork of emotional/spiritual/existential crisis and isolation. Father Toller (Ethan Hawke, incredible), the lonely minister of a 250 year-old New York tourist church known as “First Reformed”, wracked with guilt over the death of his son (who he convinced to sign up for the Iraq war) and the disintegration of his marriage, spends his days writing, drinking and preaching to small turnouts in the shadow of parent organization Abundant Life, a church operating as a televangelist and community centre with the backing of millionaire donors. Similarly to cleric’s of Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light, Toller is reckoning with internal issues of faith and health he can’t bring himself to reconcile, and his own inability to bring solace to his patrons being crushed by overwhelming external forces.
Schrader films in a 4:3 ratio and stripped down mise-en-scène that recalls the previously mentioned films and Dreyer’s Ordet, and some of the best use of close-ups since his Passion of Joan of Arc—a conversation early in the film where Toller talks to a distressed environmental activist is shot in a simple wide composition and two reverse close-ups, one of Michael (Philip Ettinger), devastated at the idea of bringing a child into a world with a ticking time clock on its existence, all of his gathered data on the wall overwhelming the frame just behind his head and another of Hawke in a barren frame, highlighting his sorrowful eyes, panicking that there’s nothing he can do to help him.
First Reformed continues in this deeply restrained psychological style until the intrusion of a violent act (that coincides with Toller’s discovery of his own institutions failures and complicity in it) that shakes the film to its core, and it’s here that Schrader melds the influences into his own, taking the existential priests of cinema’s past and having them descend into the violent spiritual madness of Taxi Driver or Rolling Thunder, a pervasive electronic score takes over the previously quiet film while a lovely Ozu-esque digression into warm kindness of Toller’s domestic relationship with Mary (Amanda Seyfried), Michael’s pregnant wife, sheds itself into destructive thoughts, climaxing on one of the most powerful images of the year—I won’t spoil here but it involves the combination of religious garb with a violent device that can be seen in the news every few weeks.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Schrader’s maturation as a filmmaker that, despite highlighting our own violent tendencies and ineptitude at combating institutional powers, he never follows through on the Chekhov’s Gun and instead of going for cynical pulp he leans into two lovely, rapturous sequences (one being the film’s final shot) that remain hopeful about the future through our unwavering capability of emotional generosity.