I’ve been watching a lot of movies for a long time, and yet I’d be the first to admit I have a lot to learn about the movies. I went through a Scorsese phase a while back and finally saw some of his iconic early work, from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to The Last Temptation of Christ.
I didn’t know until just recently that they were all written by the same man, Paul Schrader. A screenwriter and director since the 1970s, Schrader’s name is also behind the likes of American Gigolo, Affliction and many, many more (several of which he also directed).
His latest is First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke as a pastor at a historic rural church in upstate New York. And like so many of his earlier films, it centers around a tense situation that bubbles until it nearly boils only to combust in ways we never could have seen coming.
Reverend Toller (Hawke) lives an unassuming life as pastor of a small, historic church that’s funded and managed by a nearby mega-church, where religion is commerce and vice versa. Following the death of his son and dissolution of his marriage, he’s found solace in this 200-year-old institution, catering to a small group of locals who prefer its history and intimacy over the alternative.
Into this predictable existence walks Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her radical environmentalist husband, new in town, expecting a baby and in need of some guidance. But even Toller can’t help this damaged soul, and Toller is the one to find his body in the forest, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. This sets in motion a plot that revolves around grief, capitalism, second chances and self-reflection.
The whole film is like watching a pot of water on the stove. The lid is on and the flame is getting hotter and hotter; we’re left wondering when the top will come bursting off. Even the picture on screen is constrained, presented in a rarely seen (these days, at least) 1.37:1 aspect ratio, essentially a square frame. These close quarters only intensify the drama, as Toller learns more about Mary, her husband and the depths of his commitment to the cause.
As it becomes clear to us just what Toller has in mind as the church’s 200th anniversary celebration approaches, Schrader’s genius is on full display. Every character is expertly drawn, every scene perfectly crafted. Mary and Toller’s bond grows as he becomes less and less tolerant of a former flame of his in the church administration. Toller questions his faith and his role in the church as its leaders rely more and more on his unfaltering loyalty. It all makes for shaky ground, and it’s surely going to crumble.
By the time Schrader has to bring the proceedings to an end, it’s hard to see just how he’ll do it. Suffice it to say that the final few scenes of First Reformed are some of the most tense, impressive moments of a film you may see all year.