As we are first introduced to Ethan Hawke's, Reverend Ernst Toller, he is narrating over his journal entries in private. From the name alone (which you can learn from reading the slipcover), "Ernst Toller" imbues Hawke's character with respective serious attributes and he who tolls the bell. The name in itself, as with most dedicated filmmakers and writers (and D&D character creation) should be indicative of what the character stands for. Ernest, serious, and vigilantly standing to break the silence of conformity with his just cause, ringing aloud. When we see him in full form, he is doing none other than his sermon. One thing that immediately took my attention was how director/writer Paul Schrader positions Toller. The first wide shot that introduces us to his image and voice is of him standing before his congregation, to the far right of the screen. At the central focus, is the crucified Jesus Christ, thus placing Toller to his right (in our perspective), but to Jesus' true left. Now, say what you will, but within the first five minutes of the film, Schrader already depicts the main character and vehicle from which we will be experiencing this film, in the shoes of Gestus, the impenitent thief.
Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, courtesy of A24
Contrary to Dismus the penitent, we can be led to believe that Hawke's reverend will mock Jesus Christ, and suffer for it. Now all of this is deduced and presented for audience interpretation, within the first five minutes. I apologize for my university art history nostalgia and intrigue, but to further the suspicion, Gestus can be seen in some paintings crucified to Jesus' left, suffering with the devil upon him.
What does this say about First Reformed, well you'll have to watch it to find out, but it begins with slow yet subtle theological thrill. And I'll end this first few minutes analysis with a shot depicting a stack of books on Toller's nightstand. One would assume the Bible to be the one and only literature needed, but atop of this stack is not the Bible, but "The Cloud of Unknowing". This collection being referred to as a book that mirrors more Buddhist and Transcendentalist thoughts and mysticism rather than Christianity. This final piece informs that Reverend Toller is surly, unconventional. In line with the works of a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, perhaps Toller is in search of not burdensome knowledge but of an experience to reassure himself during his crisis of faith. Alas, let's get into the personally long awaited review.
Ethan Hawke & Amanda Seyfried in First Reformed, courtesy of A24
So it would not be far-fetched to assume First Reformed is something possibly in line with Schrader's written magnum opus, Taxi Driver. Frankly, it didn't stand out as much as I was expecting and hoping for. There were some shots of the city, of Toller driving, or Toller in his private quarters that reminded me of Travis Bickle, but nothing too blatant. The plot is not similar at all, aside from a sort of anti-hero lonesome and depressed persona of our central figures. Reverend Toller finds himself struggling to maintain himself on the path of righteousness when a series of unexpected events leads him to seek information in the slowly yet surely incoming ecological apocalypse. There is a substantial environmental message to this film, and it is in all actuality probably the main plotline, with the religious faith being more of the subplot. That may throw some people off, but its message goes hand in hand with what Toller begins to believe and fight for.
While I didn't like the film nearly as much as the mass majority, I am going to applaud what is one of Ethan Hawke's best roles to date. Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer are also in the film, but they don't even stand out of Hawke's shadow in this performance. They were okay, just not even close to the same layered intensity. Hawke delivers such a nuanced performance that I feel he has deep within himself already. The manner in which he portrays inner turmoil, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and want for something true in this world is done with such delicacy and detail. He had a similar yet not as refined role with his portrayal of an alcoholic veteran suffering from PTSD due to exposure to myriads of drone bombing and killings, in Good Kill. It's a rather underseen film, with another great Hawke performance. His role of Reverend Ernst Toller is nothing short of brilliant. His mannerisms from how he walks, how he writes, his journal narrations, his speech, and especially how he winces and squeezes his eyes shut when he needs to pray urgently. You can feel his pain, through his eyes. It's absolutely, without doubt, an under appreciated Oscar-worthy lead performance.
Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, courtesy of A24
Like Merton, who he comes off as praising even more than Jesus, Toller seeks for some type of experience. He does not demand knowledge or forgiveness for himself; he is comforted by his own inner dialogue and faith. In line with his praised Merton, Toller too shares the stout belief that to seek knowledge and doctrine alone is not enough. One must engage with the physical and spiritual world. Both holy figures fit in line with Eastern zen, rather than cookie-cutter Christianity. And for the same reason, Toller begins to question that he is not doing enough. Through his self-meditation within his journal, his vision and objective alter in line with the environmental activism. His faith and righteousness that he speaks of and clings to is questioned throughout the film. It is evident that these ecological concerns begin to waver his beliefs, not in God, but perhaps more in the structure and physical embodiment, the Church. Toller's worries that big business and the material world have superseded God and all of his creations begin to manifest as Toller's health begins to decline. Bringing to mind a quote from Merton, "Every moment and every event of every man's life on earth plants something in his soul" the devote theological and environmental plots converge.
First Reformed is a performance-driven film, but I really enjoyed Schrader's direction. Perhaps more-so, the minimalist cinematography, and artistic shot composition. There are a handful of shots that perfectly capture the aesthetic of realist art. The vulnerable moments of Toller's diary scenes bring to mind the likes of Ilya Repin. The aspect ratio lends itself to truly lay emphasis on each character. When in dialogue, the ratio captures their faces and expressions with utmost intimacy. You hear each inflection, you feel each blink, squint, grimace, hesitation, and you synchronize with the breath. One last thing I'd like to touch upon is how the old-school classic ration applies to the outdoors. As I already expounded enough theology for a film review, I would be remiss if I did not bring up how there is a metaphorical parallel in the composition of the earth and sky above. Now maybe this has nothing to do with the unique aspect ratio, but I really liked how the outdoor scenes were composed in such a manner to maintain the divine and balanced connection between Mother Nature's soil beneath our feet and the Divine skies above our heads. In that notion, we can further connect the dynamic hinted through the aforementioned "Cloud of Unknowing" text, and the introduced ecological plot. These lands we walk upon are holy, and it is said in Christianity that God created everything, which would include the rivers, trees, plants, soil, and us.
So in final verdict, I was very impressed by Hawke's performance, as well as Schrader's script and direction. But I'm not entirely certain that I would say I "loved" the film. I undoubtedly applaud its quality as a piece of poetic art, but I just didn't love it like I wanted to. I narrated over myself as I wrote this, pondering whether a 7 or 8 rating would fit better. I went with the latter, but I can already feel that I may have different journal ratings upon future visits. Had the ending gone with the more deserved route, I think I would have genuinely appreciated it much much more, but instead, I found myself still seated on the mental magic mystery tour of what could have been gloriously righteous. I mean, come one! Quit the subversion and give me the rightful correlating culmination that would have perfectly matched the opening establishing shot.