First Look at First Reformed

Posted 19 July 2018

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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 surroundings.

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.

Roisin McDaid

Roisin has a BA/Hons in Drama and Theatre and is an aspiring writer. Twitter: @roshmcd Read more posts by Roisin McDaid

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