I’m not a religious man, but I’ve always found religion fascinating, especially people’s relationships to it. Since it’s something many people hold very dear to them, it allows for some very in depth exploration into their psyche. This also allows for some great stories to be told, whether it’s about the person losing their faith, gaining it, questioning it, reckoning it. It’s sometimes the biggest part of somebody’s life and if that’s affected in any way, the consequences for them can be earth shattering. 

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at the First Reformed church. A 250-year old church that’s now more of a tourist destination than a place of worship, it receives its financial support from a local megachurch. One day, member Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Toller, saying her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) is desperate to speak with him. Michael is a member of an environmental activist group and when he meets Toller, he relays his worries Mary being pregnant and bringing a child into this polluted world. Michael’s radical beliefs begin influencing Toller, causing him to question his own faith and service to the church. A church who seems to not care about this issue at all.

Written and directed by Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, we almost have a modern retelling of the story, but now from a religious angle. Oh yeah, and Toller isn’t completely crazy and feels a bit more sympathetic. That’s probably because we explicitly get his backstory here, having a family history of serving in the military, as well as being a military chaplain. What was the beginning of his eventual breaking point was the death of his son, who he talked into serving in the Iraq War. Taking personal responsibility for his death, he started closing himself off from everybody else in his life, eventually ruining his marriage. He now lives alone, in the almost unnaturally bare living quarters of the church. He often tends to the garden and keeps his problems to himself, until Michael and Mary enter his life, basically shaking up his entire reality. Since these people willingly approached him, he looks to them as a human connection through his plight.

It’s difficult to fully go into the details of the Toller’s dilemma without spoilers, but after speaking with Micahel, he becomes more invested in the dangers of climate change and the church’s willful ignorance of it. He’s just not sure what he can really do. He debates with members of the megachurch about how the religious leaders need to take a larger stance on the issue, but it all falls on deaf ears in favor of politics and money. Since he can’t talk them into it, he feels he’s also part of the problem, causing him to slide deeper and deeper into insanity. Toller writes in a journal throughout the film, where we hear his narrations get increasingly more twisted and desperate. I agree that climate change is a problem and I’m not here to debate, but Schrader eventually does get a little too preachy with the matter. However, it logically shows Toller’s decreasing psychological state.

There’s a lot of silence, especially at the beginning where even the opening credits completely lack a musical score. As Toller feels the walls further close in on him more, though, the excellent synth score by Lustmord comes blaring into the forefront. This is a very slow-paced character drama, but I had a deep sense of anxiety the entire time. The film is shot in a 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio, which is basically 4:3, giving it a very intimate, yet claustrophobic atmosphere. Every scene feels carefully framed, the characters, homes, and environments all symmetrically placed, mostly in the center. It allowed me to focus on just the characters and it also lets the performances standout more too. Ethan Hawke, one of my favorite actors, carries the film with sense of haunting introversion, evoking a lot with his eyes and unimposing stature. As he questions the faith he serves more and more, he loses it more and more, letting all of his untold issues come to light. It’s a magnificent performance that showcases massive depth, range, and a command of your character.

Just like Taxi Driver, with the slow burn pacing and riveting character study and performance, I was expecting a truly incredible conclusion. What we got here felt very unsatisfying, abrupt, and almost unfinished. During the final act, I had an idea of where the story was going, but then Schrader kept twisting it, just making it more and more tense and exciting. Then it just kind of stops. I think I understood the point Schrader was making, but for what the film was building up to, it felt very unsatisfactory and prevented the film from achieving near perfection.

But also like Taxi DriverFirst Reformed is a compelling character study about man’s shaken faith and finding any desperate way he can to reconcile it, even if it means destroying himself. For a film with such a slow pace, I was gripped by the performances, cinematography, and atmosphere. Unfortunately, the lack of a satisfying conclusion just made me want more. Still, it’s nice that filmmakers like Paul Schrader are deciding to stick around and give us films we normally don’t get anymore.


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