First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s newest (and possibly best) film as a director, is presented in the boxy, old-school aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (the shape of twentieth century televisions and most movies made before the mid-1950s). While this suggests Schrader is au courant with indie cinema trends and the films of Andrea Arnold, David Lowery, Kelly Reichardt, Xavier Dolan and more, he’s never been much of a follower. On the contrary, he is guided by his own inner spiritual compass, sometimes for good and sometimes not. In that way, he’s not unlike his own protagonist here.
Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, the minister of a tiny church in a tiny town in upstate New York. The old, historical chapel serves more as a museum than a house of worship and Toller is as much tour guide as minister. The only reason it’s kept running at all is because it’s owned and operated by a nearby megachurch, whose pastor (Cedric the Entertainer, credited as Cedric Kyles) is a compassionate but sometimes stern confidant to Toller. The little church does have a congregation, though, and when one of its members, a young, pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to Toller to ask him to counsel her despondent husband (Philip Ettinger), the reverend is set on a different path, uncovering a new understanding of his duties as a man of God here on Earth.
One explanation for Schrader’s choice of aspect ratio could be the way its tighter, more economical use of space mirrors Toller’s commitment to a life of bare necessities. He’s monastically minimalist, perhaps to an extreme (even monks have smartphones), a sharp contrast to the modernized, cavernous space in which Kyles’ Reverend Jeffers practices his own vocation. But Schrader is by no means suggesting that Jeffers is less devout or that Toller’s ways are more pure. Toller’s restrictions are self-imposed and crucial to his relationship to God, to the members of his church and to his own past. For once, a movie clergyman is not having a crisis of faith but, rather, a crisis of understanding the shape that faith may take.
Of course, that’s not to imply the First Reformed will be roundly welcomed by American Christian audiences. This is, after all, Paul Schrader we’re talking about. He’s long been a provocateur and he’s gleefully unafraid to employ pulp in pursuit of achieving his goals. Toller eventually goes to some places that are very dark and physically uncomfortable for both himself and the audience. These developments may seem superficially far-fetched but they are never dishonest, for which we have the commitment of both Schrader and Hawke to thank.
First Reformed‘s three outstanding central performances (Hawke, Seyfried, Kyles) are complimented by three incisive and crucial supporting turns (Ettinger, Michael Gaston as a wealthy member of Jeffers’ congregation and Victoria Hill as an administrator in the office of Jeffers’ church). Still, it’s far from an ensemble piece. Though Seyfried’s role is a complex and essential one, flawlessly executed, this is Hawke’s showcase. The youthful energy he brought to his early roles in the 1990s matured into a measured self-regard sometime around 2004’s Before Sunset. Now he reliably brings an ineffable, melancholy thoughtfulness to every role, rendering all of his characters sympathetically, tragically human whether’s he playing a father to a boy from ages six to eighteen or a man trying to save his family during a government-sanctioned period of lawlessness. His innate sensitivity helps keep this character–named after an expressionist playwright who committed suicide after his siblings were sent to a Nazi concentration camp–from seeming overwrought, even as his behavior becomes increasingly, fascinatingly pathological and bizarre.
Generally, it’s a weakness when a movie tells us how to interpret its protagonist by having other characters sum him or her up. Here, Toller is often described to himself by others with readings like “For you, every hour is the darkest hour” or the more straightforward “You don’t live in the real world.” But, as much as the people in Toller’s life would like to think they’ve got him figured out, these aren’t diagnoses. They’re clues; they only describe his symptoms. The real key to understanding what Toller is about is evident in the fact that he lives in a museum. He’s a relic (another possible explanation for the old-timey aspect ratio). Or perhaps more accurately, he’s a time traveler. His encounter with Mary and her troubled husband have shaken him into awareness that he’s living in a future that he doesn’t understand, a bigger but colder world dancing on the precipice of its own extinction. Who wouldn’t go a little mad?