First Look at First Reformed
Posted 19 July 2018
Paul Schrader’s bold new drama cuts like a knife – sharp, deep and with
deadly precision, it’s a parable for our age. Beautifully shot in an intensely
boxy frame, Schrader focuses all our attention on his brooding and burdened
hero, the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke).
Pastor to a dwindling congregation, Toller presides over a picturesque
Dutch reform church affectionately nicknamed ‘the souvenir shop’ and totally
eclipsed by the nearby mega-church, Abundant Life. Clearly a man of stoic
conviction, Toller dutifully delivers his sermons with sincerity but ultimately
falls short of anything inspirational. At home, he toils in the garden, scrawls
in his journal by candle light and passes painful bloody urine in a dim
bathroom, the bleakness of his existence echoed by his empty monochrome
In the run up to the 250th anniversary of the first reformed church, an
event for which Toller is wholly unenthusiastic, his lonely routine is
disrupted by a young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Concerned for the
mental well-being of her husband, Roger (Van Hansis), Mary asks Toller to
counsel him. Their ensuing conversation is sombre and serious, setting the tone
for the philosophical tour de force that is First Reformed.
At its core, Schrader’s monolith is a film about loss on both a micro
and macro scale. It seamlessly shifts between themes of personal and universal interest
and is a powerful condemnation of politically motivated greed and moral
hypocrisy. Toller, like Roger, is a man experiencing a crisis of faith -
not in God but in humanity. The question of whether God can forgive his
creation is repeated throughout with no apparent answers. Mary represents the
only source of light as she is both a vessel for life and a beacon for hope.
However the God of Schrader’s film may feel, he himself is unforgiving.
First Reformed is an unapologetic wake up call for those who would turn a blind
eye to the dangers that we face. Ethan Hawke is a formidable presence on screen
in one of the best roles of his career and Seyfried acts as a welcome grounding
force, proving that in the right hands is so much more than the girl next door.