'First Reformed' is a return to form for Paul Schrader

First Reformed follows Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller, pastor at the First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, a small town in upstate New York. 

He’s a man consumed by guilt from the death of his son, who died at war and was encouraged to enlist by his father. He’s unable to pray, so as a means of confessing troubling thoughts he starts a diary. The suicide of a radical environmentalist the pastor had been counselling sparks questioning of the young man’s cause.  While his health diminishes due to illness and excessive drinking (admittedly one of Paul Schrader’s vices), Toller’s mistrust of the church as an institution grows. He conspires to fulfil the dead man’s final plans.

The premise of First Reformed is as Schrader-esque as they come, a detailed character study of an introspective man on the absolute brink – God’s lonely man. His films Light Sleeper and American Gigolo stand as noteworthy examples, but Schrader’s breakout screenplay, Taxi Driver is most comparable. Both films follow central characters that develop bitterness for the state of humanity and, while seemingly timid, are plotting. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Toller uses a diary as a way of tracking the introverted and reclusive character’s thoughts.

It’s evident that this type of character is innate and personal to the director. First Reformed is successful in this aspect. Schrader’s complete command of Toller and his complexities make for compelling viewing.

Ethan Hawke as Toller delivers a close to the chest performance. The actor, who’s often seen in talkative and confident roles, plays this one with restraint. Schrader had guided Hawke with the advice of giving a “lean back” type of performance – to not offer too much until boiling point. Amanda Seyfried, who plays the dead man’s widow and a platonic interest, also plays it low-key, even while grieving.

The film looks purposely unspectacular. Schrader dyes First Reformed with little colour and directs it with unflinching stillness. One could easily mistake it for being in black and white at times. Most notably, it’s shot with an almost square aspect ratio, completely subduing the aesthetic. There’s mostly no soundtrack, other than a score of rumbling bass undertones once things start to heat up.  All these choices emphasise the cold world Toller inhabits, perhaps even to a fantastical degree.

After a string of underwhelming efforts, First Reformed is a return to form for Paul Schrader and likely his best work since the late ‘80s. Fans of his earlier films will welcome First Reformed to his catalogue of ‘lonely’ dramas.