Paul Schrader's musing on hope and despair.
Being one of the most outstanding members of the so-called "Movie Brat" generation along with cinematographers such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader has both written and directed some of the films that marked the previous century. His illustrious career includes titles such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and American Gigolo, movies that gave Schrader a certain notoriety as an artist keen on exploring the darkest sides of his characters, men who lead lives soaked in solitude, existential agony, and profound self-loathing. The realistic, gritty portrayal of the disconnectedness between people in contemporary Western societies paved the way for a number of younger screenwriters and directors who attempted to imitate Schrader's authentic style in filmmaking with mixed results. Travis Bickle, brilliantly played by Robert de Niro in the most memorable role of his eminent career, is a prime example of Schrader's distinctive characterization, a man who reaches his breaking point after witnessing day by day the decadence of morals in the metropolis of New York, a city depicted in the gloomiest of colors by the director, Martin Scorsese.
The purely existential aspect of Schrader's view on modern life is strongly present in First Reformed, a film solely focused on the plights of the protagonist, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a middle-aged man who strives to find an equilibrium between hope and despair, the two frames of mind that are in constant struggle inside his mind and soul. Toller is the pastor at First Reformed church in a northern New York neighborhood , an institution with a limited congregation which belongs to a larger religious conglomerate, Abundant Life. Toller is fulfilling his obligations as a spiritual guide prudently, but, as the audience can see from the first minutes of the movie's runtime, he is tormented by doubts regarding his faith and often seeks solace in alcohol, something that makes things even more complicated. Schrader, who is both the director and the screenwriter, provides the audience with a thorough picture of the protagonist's inner turmoil as he, in an attempt to put his thoughts in order, keeps a personal diary where he discloses his suppressed emotions and confesses his persistent thoughts that alienate him both from God and his fellow humans.
Toller believes that he finds a way to fill the void in his soul when one of his parishioners, a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), tells him that her husband, Michael, is feeling very low and may have suicidal tendencies. The Reverend accepts the challenge and meets Michael in his house where the two men have a deep discussion regarding God's obliviousness to human suffering and the destruction of his natural habitat, an urgent reality which becomes more and more apparent in the recent years. Michael is an environmental activist and puts a lot of effort in convincing Toller about the importance of a heightened ecological consciousness that will save the future of the coming generations. The Reverend listens to Michael and finds himself amenable to his passion and devotion to the greater good. Thus, he is more than shocked when one day, as he is taking a stroll, stumbles upon Michael's dead body. Shaken by the fact that he couldn't help a man contemplating of killing himself, Toller feels obligated to help Mary, the young widow, and gets closer to her as they struggle to overcome Michael's suicide together.
The connection between Toller and Mary is one of the key themes in the film and the development of their relationship is one of Schrader's main narrative vehicles, aiming to emotionally engage the audience with the Reverend's actions and his shy, sometimes awkward, attempt to attach himself to another human being. The director interjects some lyrical scenes, reminiscent of magical realism, which act as an interlude providing a necessary relief from the overall bleakness of the film's central motif. Toller is a man who seems to value solitude and his interest in Mary's predicament becomes all the more exceptional when we watch the way in which he treats another woman who is trying to express her intimate feelings for him. The abrupt, almost cynical, response to her flirtation makes evident that he prefers to stand alone in a world that becomes more and more incomprehensible as time goes by. As a fictional character, Toller is close to Travis Bickle in the sense that they are both feeling suffocated by their immediate environment and try to find the proper channel to relieve their bottomless frustration, searching in all the wrong places.
There are many reviewers that found the ending, and more specifically the final 10 minutes, to be brisk and not in harmonic accordance with the rest of the movie and I thought the exact same thing as in the end, Toller is almost transformed to another person who is ready to commit the most terrible of deeds, incurably confused and angry with the world as a whole. The final scene, even though cathartic and reassuring, is perceived as ill-suiting, especially if we take into consideration the fact that the story as told therefore doesn't warrant such a conclusion. It was a bit disconcerting to watch a well-written film to fall apart like that in the denouement, leaving the viewer feeling that he missed something vital concerning the movie's cohesion and purpose. First Reformed doesn't carry the weight of Schrader's previous work, even though it bears the trademarks of the American auteur's style as far as the choice of main themes and character portrayal are concerned. The movie lacks a pacing that would justify the final climax and that's something that can't be overlooked as it renders the production uneven.
Besides the aforementioned observations, First Reformed still packs a powerful emotional punch and there are times when the viewer feels that he can fully enter the protagonist's afflicted state of mind. Hawke is wonderful in his performance and it is once again proved that Schrader is a seasoned filmmaker who knows how to extract the maximum from his actors. Of course, the well-written screenplay helps the character to become transparent to the eyes of the audience through the exceptional dialogue that exposes their inner cosmos in a way reminiscent of the great, classic literary authors. There is something approaching timelessness in Schrader's heroes as they can be perceived as symbols of an age in which humans face new challenges mainly having to do with the breakdown of communication and lack of meaning in their lives. Being a priest and a man of God, Toller is the most appropriate person to reaise questions about faith, human nature, and the problem of evil. If you can disregard an inappropriate conclusion to an otherwise engaging story, then this is a film that will satisfy your mind and soul. It's a distressing, dreary view on the human condition, but also a beacon of hope that springs from intensive self-examination and sweet surrender to love.