** ½ (out of 4)
Paul Schrader has had his fair share of ups and downs in his decades-long career as a director-screenwriter. At their best, his works demonstrate a masterful use of technique, and they effectively capture the alienation and pent-up resentment that can drive individuals towards extremism. (Think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote.) At their worst, however, Schrader’s films are too didactic for comfort, undermining themselves with their stubborn insistence on reiterating the same basic messages over and over. (For two characteristic examples of this, see Blue Collar and Affliction, both of which Schrader directed and wrote.)
In some ways, First Reformed constitutes a synthesis of Schrader’s best and worst traits, combining his focus on individual alienation, his stylistic prowess, and his monotonous didacticism to make a work that’s interesting but ultimately flawed. Start with the alienation part of the equation. From the get-go, it’s clear that Reformed’s protagonist, a reverend named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), is something like a 21st-century version of Travis Bickle. Like Bickle, after all, Toller is completely estranged from society: his wife left him years ago, his son died in Iraq, and he’s lucky if even five people show up to his Sunday sermons. Furthermore, while Bickle becomes disturbingly fixated on a young girl he deems to be “pure,” Toller develops an equally disquieting obsession with climate change, especially after conversing with a radical environmental activist named Michael (Philip Ettinger).
As he charts Toller’s gradual descent into fanaticism, moreover, Schrader easily proves himself to be one of the most formally gifted filmmakers alive. His distorted wide-angle shots all speak to Toller’s increasingly warped perception of the world. Additionally, the film’s rigid set design, still camerawork, and square aspect ratio skillfully represent the unfulfilling, almost stifling nature of Toller’s religious lifestyle. And Schrader’s use of long shots draws our attention to the physical distances that separate the on-screen characters, thereby underscoring Toller’s feelings of alienation and loneliness. Taken together, these various features not only showcase Schrader’s extensive knowledge of film history – he doesn’t hide his debts to Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Paweł Pawlikowski – but they also serve as a vivid depiction of Toller’s tormented psyche.
Sadly, this stylistic aptitude is ultimately placed in the service of a narrative that’s annoyingly, unproductively single-minded. In just about every scene – whether through expository voice-over narration, vaguely magical-realist sequences, or tense dialogue – the film repeatedly seeks to hammer in the same straightforward idea: Toller’s faith is utterly useless as a bulwark against all the pollution, cruelty, and extremism in our world. Occasionally, to be sure, Reformed does move beyond such redundant didacticism – the ending, for instance, not only represents a welcome departure from the incessant gloom that predominates in the rest of the film, but it also contains a degree of ambiguity that Schrader’s previous works mostly lack. Yet such moments notwithstanding, Reformed generally carries an air of importance that belies the simplistic, one-note, and ham-handed nature of its material.
At this point, I should probably add that Reformed does benefit from the work of its actors, though not in the way that a lot of people have been putting it. Hawke has received widespread praise for his performance; The New York Times, in fact, went so far as to call him an “epiphany.” Yet try as he might, Hawke never manages to break free of the script’s fundamentally limited conception of Toller’s character. Instead, the movie’s real (and underappreciated) stand-out is Amanda Seyfried, the actress who plays Michael’s distressed wife. As with his buddy Martin Scorsese, Schrader isn’t exactly known for his consistently complex characterizations of women, but Seyfried is still able to make an apparently stereotypical role feel fresh and interesting. In a film that’s generally much less edifying than it seems, her measured humanity provides just enough of a balm to get you through the whole thing in one piece.
First Reformed (2017)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles
Running Time: 108 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for some disturbing violent images.”
Produced by: Jack Binder, Gary Hamilton, Victoria Hill, Frank Murray, Deepka Sikka, Christine Vachon
Written and Directed by: Paul Schrader