Paul Schrader, 2017, USA
Words such as “austere” and “serious” are the kind of expressions made to pepper reactions to Paul Schrader’s character study of a priest descending into an irrevocable despair. After all, we can begin with the protagonist – Ethan Hawke – being named Ernst Toller, the same name as the left-wing playwright that committed suicide. If Ingmar Bergman was American streetwise, it might feel like this. The colours are so drained that – as Simon Mayo says – it feels as if the film is black and white. Indeed, it’s so dour that it’s moments of oddness and surely black humour can get lost under the weight of it all: a choir singing jubilantly about being purified in the blood of lambs (this is as darkly amusing and disturbing as a typical moment in a horror film); or when they sing a Neil Young protest song when ashes are being scattered in polluted waters.
But overall, it’s a masterclass in letting dialogue and actors carry the drama with conversation and performance. The conversation between Toller and Michael (Philip Ettinger) for example: Michael’s wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is concerned about Michael’s deteriorating behaviour after he’s just been arrested for environmentalist activism and asks Toller to counsel him. It’s a compelling and convincing conversation and exposition is organic, the performances thoroughly disarming, intimate and moving. It’s also when I first started thinking, When did Ethan Hawke have that face? It’s a compelling face that is as once stolid, lined, vulnerable, frequently seemingly on the verge of tears or a breakdown. It’s sure to be one of the performances of the year. Toller used to be a military man who encouraged his son to join up; when his son died soon after, Toller’s marriage fell apart and he fell into a pit of darkness and conflicted faith. Although Toller appears to be available to his meagre congregation and his duties – he ministers a “souvenir shop” Church in a somewhat tokenistic position – he is an alcoholic and will not face-up to his mortality. He writes a journal in lieu of prayer – and here is a narration as colour rather than a tour guide, showing that Schrader is again a master of the voiceover – and finds that his crisis of faith leaves room for a political awakening. When he cannot forgive himself, it’s surely a small step to the conclusion that God will not forgive us either.
Elsewhere, characterisation is wittily measured just right so that, for example, the out-of-touch opinions of Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles, or a.k.a. Cedric the entertainer) is both recognisable and amusing without being condescending; or the conversations between Toller and Mary that feel both revealing and chaste.
It’s filmed with the tenor of slow horror with something tense, pending and uncanny as a watermargin (it’s not so dissimilar to the first act of ‘Hereditary’, for example), set by Brian Williams’ foreboding score. Then it moves into magic realism and an ending that is sure to provoke debate (confusion as a first stop, but perhaps dissent too). It’s bold and although there may be accusations that the ending is unfounded the ambiguity is surely a bold move from the tidier and perhaps less striking and troubling endings that might have been. It’s a riveting work that can’t help but echo Schrader's ‘Taxi Driver’ (and it knows it and references that too), but it’s another crucial portrayal of a man both imploding and exploding in slow motion. When faith and activism and violence blur so much in the news, ‘First Reformed’ finds that moment where they crash and is intelligent, empathic and vital viewing.