DirectX 11 was the scourge of my gaming childhood. Battling with a low end Windows 7, similar to the piece o’ crap library PC I’m writing this on, I would have to install, uninstall, and then reinstall this stupid graphics driver just so I could play my copy of Shrek 2 on low graphics. The frustration and need for DirectX 11 was difficult to process. So, too, is First Reformed.
First Reformed came out this past weekend here in Cincinnati, but found its initial screening at the Venice Film Festival in August of last year. I’m not hurt that I wasn’t invited, just disappointed. The film stars Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller, a priest presiding over a tourist church in small town New York. After being asked to counsel a troubled man on his despair and advocacy, Toller finds himself questioning the very same issues of environment and faith.
The struggles with the church and this world are painfully and beautifully represented on screen by writer-director Paul Schrader, whose previous work in writing Raging Bull and Taxi Driver both mirrors and abstracts from this new film. It’s interesting to see that both Schrader and Martin Scorsese, who directed Schrader’s earlier work, have come to make films on faith in the past few years. In the case of First Reformed, that wrestle with faith comes in an escalation of self. Weaved throughout this piece is a battle between what is established and what should be, what isn’t enough and what is too far. This film resonates with me in the way that I imagine it will with many, as it tackles divinity in its practice while infecting the just with missions too powerful for the individual.
Schrader has set up First Reformed as an exercise in meditation. The film opens slowly, without score or urgency. Toller, himself, enlists for a path of prayer by journaling. This practice devolves in the way many of my meditations do: fast tracking an order of Edible Arrangements and crying one’s heart out to muted episodes of The Love Boat. (Too personal? Too personal.) Instead of indulging in the temptations of flowers made from melon flesh, Toller finds his mental fortitude preyed on by the destructive call to service. Intoxicated by both drink and conservation of the environment, Toller takes a dark path while Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career. Schrader is very shrewd in his continued focus on Hawke’s face, which twists and contorts from soft to distraught at any given moment. Other notable performances come from Amanda Seyfried, portraying the torn wife to the young man in despair, and Cedric the Entertainer, pulling off an impressive turn as the megachurch pastor that oversees Toller’s congregation.
Schrader’s writing asks the viewer to carry Toller’s same burdens for almost a 2 hour runtime. While the pace is unhurried, the film builds to its climax fluidly and purposefully. This burden also grows heavier and heavier, to the point where I found myself short of breath in the theater. This film asks a lot of its audience, and might not be for everyone. In a summer of dinosaurs and lightweight, superpowered spandex, First Reformed is backpack full of cannonballs, a pack that one will carry for some time after leaving the theater. Schrader’s understanding of humanity and its pressure points are displayed masterfully, without a misstep or compromise. If one feels compelled to question society and self, then First Reformed is more than up to the task.
I give this film a 10 out of 10.