“First Reformed” movie review

‘Bresson meets Bickle in latest from Paul Schrader’

As a writer and filmmaker the subjects of religion and societal outsiders have been recurrent throughout the collective works of Paul Schrader.

Best known for penning various screenplays for Martin Scorsese including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and the cinematic masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, Schrader’s penchant for characters consumed by obsession along with a personal appreciation for the works of French filmmaker Robert Bresson have culminated in his latest release First Reformed.

Set in the fictitious upstate New York town of Snowbridge, Ethan Hawke (Predestination) stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain tasked with serving the congregation of First Reformed – an historic church used as an Underground Railway refuge during the American slave trade. With the church largely viewed as a tourist attraction and worshippers preferring the atmosphere of a neighbouring megachurch, the limited parishioners attending services coupled with various unresolved traumas lead Toller to compose his thoughts in a diary over the course of a year.

Grappling with personal issues of faith and alcoholism, the flawed man of god is requested by a member of his congregation, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, Les Misérables), to provide counsel to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, Compliance), an environmentalist recently released from prison fearful of the environment the couple’s unborn child will grow up to inhabit.

Left to dwell on the deteriorating ecology of the planet brought on in part by political inaction and vested interests operating against scientific evidence, additional interactions with Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, Top Five), industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston, Far from Heaven) and Esther (Victoria Hill, December Boys) – a church assistant with whom he does not reciprocate feelings for an on-going relationship – leave Toller to express immense helplessness in his vocation and negligence towards his health.

While the premise of a film involving religion and environmentalism could have the potential of alienating opposing sides of the ideological divide in equal measure, Schrader’s work as writer/director is less concerned with appeasing partisans of Kevin Sorbo’s recent filmography or hammering home the thesis of An Inconvenient Truth; instead First Reformed is focussed upon its flawed protagonist with little regard for smoothing out the edges.

Reminiscent in tone to films from Jim Jarmusch such as Paterson and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the reserved nature of First Reformed will not be to everyone’s liking, but by inviting viewers into a world concerned with contemporary issues of intimate and global importance, the low-key approach provides a lasting impression for viewers to ponder well after the conclusion of the 113-minute runtime.

Drawing heavily upon Robert Bresson’s 1951 adaptation of Georges Bernanos’ novel Diary of a Country Priest, the character of Reverend Ernst Toller can be seen as the encapsulation of Schrader’s influences and past cinematic work. Akin to the Bressonian titular character in serving as a priest who keeps a diary filled with sentiments of internalised religious inadequacy, Ernst Toller adheres to many of the same traits, but rather than solely serving as a contemporary adaptation of Bresson’s revered film, the legacy of Jake LaMotta, Jesus of Nazareth and particularly Travis Bickle loom large over Schrader’s protagonist.

In detailing their thoughts through internal monologues and strained interactions with those around them, Toller and Bickle can be viewed comparatively, albeit with Ethan Hawke’s performance giving off a distant appearance of stability as opposed to the unhinged tendencies evoked throughout Robert De Niro’s iconic role. Where the erratic behaviour of Travis Bickle could be attributed to the lack of support provided to veterans returning from conflict in Vietnam, the assumed responsibility of Ernst Toller as a reverend relied upon to provide guidance to others during moments of crisis provides a unique perspective that slowly builds before a culminating act of religious masochism during the closing scenes.

Filled with strong leading performances from established stars Hawke and Seyfried, along with valuable supporting roles from lesser known Victoria Hill and Cedric Kyles – aka Cedric the Entertainer – in a rare dramatic turn, First Reformed opts against grandiose actions to provide audiences with an intimate look at the life of a complicated figure tasked with demonstrating compassion, while being capable of venom towards himself and others.

While audiences may be most familiar with Paul Schrader’s scripted collaborations with Martin Scorsese, the experienced director proves with First Reformed that rather than repeating himself after more than four decades working in film, his past works and influences are able to create an homage that resonates in the present day.

For readers looking to learn more about the filmography of Robert Bresson – one of the main influences on Paul Schrader’s latest film First Reformed – listen to the Linoleum Knife podcast hosted by film critics Alonso Duralde and Dave White.

LK co-host Dave White expresses his adoration and the contextual significance of Bresson’s work in an easy to understand manner that will leave audiences enlightened and intrigued to seek out further films and filmmakers outside the popular culture.

See the links below to hear discussions of Robert Bresson on the Linoleum Knife podcast.

Related: An introduction to Linoleum Knife



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