It’s quite apparent that First Reformed has been bouncing around in Paul Schrader’s head for quite some time. In fact, he’s actually stated that he’d been afraid to write it. It’s understandable; he’s a non-practicing Calvinist and in recovery. I completely understand how the subject material hits close to home for him.
First Reformed starts out as one thing and finishes as another, but to be clear, patience is required for the viewer. An immediate comparison emerges of Hawke’s character (Reverend Toller) to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. There is a fatalistic and desperate streak that runs through both of these characters (obviously, in different ways). However, the more I’ve let the film percolate, the more I think of films such as Gran Torino, in that we see a fundamental transformation of a character’s values that ultimately affect the outcome.
This is, undoubtedly, the best performance of Hawke’s career. He executes a nuanced and careful performance; just as we feel we can connect, he withdraws, alienating us, time and time again. The underutilized Amanda Seyfried also delivers her best performance–reserved and vulnerable.
This film captures the crossroads of politics and religion with a finesse I haven’t seen before. While that premise might make some people apprehensive, it actually treats these topics with respect. Politics and religion, at the end of the day, share a very common theme–faith. We have faith in salvation and we have faith that our political leaders will guide our society to a better future. However, I think Schrader’s message here is that faith can waver and that unfortunately hope can’t exist without despair.
I will concede that this film is political to a fault…if you let it be. It could be a fatalistic human character study or it could also be a magical realism allegory. Maybe it’s both. I won’t say more because I want you to arrive at your own conclusions. First Reformed, in my opinion, tries to be a lot and nothing at the same time. There are long philosophical conversations that pull me back to my obligatory religion classes in college and then there are tense and cringe-inducing situations that make you squirm. The showing I attended had a few audible notes of discomfort among the audience.
Over the years, Schrader has been itinerant in his writing and filmmaking. Taxi Driver and American Gigolo were his high water marks for writing. That was the 70s and 80s. While the films made in that era by legendary directors (Scorsese, DePalma, Coppola, Lumet, etc) are obviously iconic, First Reformed is an update and an homage to that style and sophistication that we were introduced to 40 years ago.
My good friend says that this films throws the narrative kitchen sink at you, with regard to the conflicts it presents. This is particularly true in the last thirty minutes. Expecting things to be neatly resolved and explained is not an expectation with which one should expect. This is where my criticism comes in. The exposition in this film is somewhat uneven. There are elements where things are spoon-fed to us and at other times there are instances where we have to infer (though it’s not too difficult). In my opinion, that is the main weakness of the film.
At the end of the day, however, my main takeaway was this: How do we deal with loss? How do we keep our faith? What do we truly believe in? How far will we go to preserve our faith? Could violence actually be a solution? As it’s clearly apparent, this is the type of film that will have you leaving the theater with more questions than answers, while also wondering “What the hell did I just see?”