Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to his creation?
There are only 9 times in First Reformed that the camera moves during a shot. 9 times. Other than that, the camera remains still, fixed in place. We’ll talk about why in a moment, right now we must discuss the camera movements. They all come when Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) – a reverend of a small congregation in upstate New York – is with Mary (Amanda Seyfried) a young pregnant wife whose troubled environmentalist husband Toller becomes increasingly influenced by as his own despair of the world mounts – and in each encounter throughout the film the camera will move progressively more as the relationship between the two grows. It starts off so simply, when Toller arrives at Mary’s to discover a dark secret she needs his help with, the camera just dollies to the right slowly as they walk to the garage. With each encounter, the camera feels more free. By the end, it’s whirling around them rapturously, resulting in one of the boldest endings you’ll see this year.
When A24 announced that they picked up this film, they described it as a cross between Taxi Driver and A Ghost Story. They were right. It is a gorgeous, tender combination of the fury of Taxi Driver and the cosmic place of humanity of A Ghost Story. Taxi Driver is my favorite film, so naturally when writer/director Paul Schrader began to really lean back into that film in First Reformed, I became all the more enamored with it. Schrader even mimics one of the classic shots of Taxi Driver when Toller pours pepto bismol into his alcohol, and the camera watches as it slowly but surely pollutes the drink to symbolize the growing pollution of our planet.
The cinematography by Alexander Dynan does so much with so little. As stated at the beginning, the camera remains perfectly still aside from 9 shots. This subtly communicates the trapped feeling that Toller lives in, the inescapability of mundanity and the inevitability of the world’s destruction, our powerlessness to stop it. The 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio further constricts the image, therefore further limiting our characters and their ability to break free. They shoot it all with natural lighting, evoking the natural spirituality that we’ve tainted in our world. It’s magnificent work done so simply.
Ethan Hawke is one of those actors that always delivers even if the film around him doesn’t. I’ve always admired that about him, even when he’s in bizarre B-action movies he’s not looking down on it, he’s giving it his all. It’s no stretch to say that First Reformed is one of his finest performances, it feels like a role only he could portray. He just inhabits weariness and despair so naturally. One character describes Toller as “always in the garden (of Gethsemane)” and that’s just a perfect description of Toller. He’s always in the garden suffering, taking on the problems of the world of his own in a martyr complex, in his own way becoming more like Christ. Hawke’s suffering is captivating to witness, he can tell you his life story and all the tragedies he’s experienced in a single look.
The rest of the cast is winning as well. Philip Ettinger only really has one scene as Mary’s husband Michael, and he brings it. You get a complete understanding of this man’s troubled worldview and desperate outlook in just 5 minutes of conversation. Cedric the Entertainer is a perfect bit of casting as quasi-televangelist Pastor Jeffers, Toller’s boss. He’s going by Cedrick Kyles here – let’s hope there’s more Cedric Kyles performances out there, he’s really good. It’s just also nice to see Amanda Seyfried back in quality film and given a role to really inhabit. Going back to Taxi Driver, Mary is both Betsy and Iris for Toller’s Travis Bickle, and she effortlessly portrays that sort of grace and beauty and humanity as Mary.
This is a film only Schrader could have written and labored to bring to the screen. There is a lifetime of religious guilt and frustration at the world in this film. It is a film so packed with ideas and themes yet never overweights itself. There are themes about the relationship between religion and science, the generational disconnect of modernity, feeling powerless against the endless tides of evil of humanity, and an honest look at ourselves and what we’ve done to God’s creation. I simply feel inadequate writing about it after just one viewing. Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to his creation?