Schrader and Hawke form a dark, absorbing partnership in ‘First Reformed’

“First Reformed” – Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) isn’t well.

He’s hurting both mentally and physically.

At 46, he feels lost.  To cope, he drinks.  He drinks too much.

Thankfully, he is working.  Reverend Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer) secured him a job at the First Reformed Church.  A small, tourist place of worship, which is known more for its history rather than its present.  The pews remain mostly empty during Rev. Toller’s Sunday sermons, save a handful of followers, but First Reformed was built in 1767, and it is about to celebrate its 250th birthday, so all eyes are on this particular, modest, white building nestled near Albany, NY.

During a screening of writer/director Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”, all eyes will probably be completely focused on Ethan Hawke, in one of the very best performances of 2018 so far.  Rev. Toller is a damaged, tortured soul, which is ironic for a man of the cloth, and Hawke plays him as seething with regret and anger, but these feelings are mostly subdued.  Buried, sort of.  The etched lines on his hollow cheeks and underneath his eyes act his biological sleeves where he carries his emotions, only to be topped by his eyes which cannot conceal his pain, as he tries to recite positive messages to his small parish.

One these members is Mary (Amanda Seyfried), and she asks him to see her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), because of a personal matter.  Little does Rev. Toller know how much this meeting with Michael will change his life.  Actually, it awakens him, and soon, Michael’s beliefs, which initially worried Mary, now also worry Rev. Toller.  This worry, however, takes on a different, dangerous form.

Schrader – who wrote “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Affliction” (1997) – isn’t afraid of delving into dark material and deeply troubled characters, and Toller is among his most memorable.  Admittedly, Rev. Toller is not as iconic as Travis Bickle, but the similarities between the two certainly exist.  In one example, the reverend drives around town, takes a frank look at his current environment, as Schrader captures a random fist fight between two locals in an empty parking lot.  Humans can be senseless, and Rev. Toller passes judgment, like Bickle.  Of course, Bickle drove for a living, and the good reverend doesn’t.  This makes Schrader’s parallel more obvious.

First Reformed and the past caretakers serve as a parallel as well.  In the 19th century, the church and its members supported the Abolitionist Movement. They hid slaves on the Underground Railroad and helped them to safe harbor in nearby Canada.  Rev. Toller seeks the same salvation for a different population, but his new cause is much too vast for only one man to take a stand, and therefore, he wishes to make a statement with the only means available.

Religion is a backdrop for this story, but it also operates as symbolic and actual hypocrisies, and using his position, Rev. Toller’s current ire and frustration can be channeled in a new and very specific direction.   This direction resonates with him, but it doesn’t within the common pleasantries of simply getting along.  Getting along anywhere, or in specific locales like the Abundant Life megachurch, a family home, a polluting manufacturing plant, or an unassuming restaurant like Millie’s Pancake House which sits on the town’s main drag.

Schrader also has this remarkable knack for delivering engaging camerawork in unassuming ways.  Sometimes, he will just drop his camera in a living room or an office and let two characters converse about dicey topics for a few minutes.  He’ll approach the First Reform church with a pedestrian pace during the film’s opening approach shot, and the Abundant Life logo on the lobby floor is displayed upside-down by Schrader’s camera, which sits high above.

It all seems to have a purpose, including the stark white indoor walls and pews of First Reformed, because they do not exactly line up to the current state of Rev. Toller’s heart.

Rev. Toller’s distorted point of view makes sense to him.  Sure, he’s horribly sick, but so is life in 2018.  At least that’s Schrader’s judgment in this film.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of   ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits:  A24

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