Sundance 2018 – First Reformed – Review

Online Screen Editor Harry Caton dives into the dense, exceptional First Reformed, part of the Sundance Film Festival

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How do I even start to review First Reformed? A dense thing, so much of it incurs the sort of sheer fascination that had me clenching the armrests of my seat with casual abandon. That’s a pretentious sentiment, certainly. A film about faith, trauma, and absence might not seem outright transformative. But there comes a moment in viewing a genuinely excellent film where, as a reviewer, you find yourself struggling to meaningfully engage, for want of something, anything, to criticise. Consider this a retort to that mentality. The boldness of this film works because of that positive, tangible engagement with the viewer. With reviews, the form itself implies a sort of qualitative survey; let this be more of an appreciation, then. I loved this film in all its challenging, theologically-discontented nature, and only want to understand quite how it does what it does. Perhaps things can never be perfect – criticism has taught me as much – but I’d be lying if I said issues I might take really destabilise the broader whole.

Paul Schrader, writer-director of First Reformed

The actual plot is straightforward enough. The protestant Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) manages a small church in upstate New York, struggling with both unresolved personal trauma and the encroaching absurdities of the modern day. As the days roll on towards the church’s eventual reconsecration, a tragedy strikes, and his already-fragile psyche is forced into a spiral. Consequently, he starts to genuinely question the worth of holding a faith that seems painfully inactive and unresponsive in the modern world. It’s a simple set-up, comparable to Taxi Driver, the 1976 film also written by the writer-director, Paul Schrader; both films grapple with their central masculine woes, each a perversion of the individualist self-actualisation narrative. But stronger reference points lie even further back. Clear debts are owed to the stark, theologically-absent Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and – further still – the writings of John Calvin, a key figure in the Protestantism so much at this film’s centre.

Diary, itself a treatise on faith in a secular world, here reflects this film in each one’s apparent nihilism: woe betides the priest who might question or resolve man’s immutable relationship with God. However, the similarities run deeper. The two share certain structural and formal characteristics: the protagonists are unhealthily ascetic; the aspect ratio is a boxy 4:3, implying some hidden absence at the edge of the frame; and the very work of the priest – to reconcile and preach – is beset by chastisement and doubt. This film, however, embodies a specifically-protestant take on the apparent subgenre of the beleaguered ecclesiastic. John Calvin’s reformation of the church is even keyed in upon in the title. Humans, to Calvin, were inherently stained creatures, redeemable only in the eyes of – and their faith in – an unknowable God. The vitality of the Christian religion is not in acts but faith, rigid obedience all that will ever matter. Accordingly, we might save the world or drive it to ruin; His opinion would not change.

All the stern formal command creates a sort of trance, any human movement at all plagued by passivity

It’s a bleak outlook, certainly, and it’s one that the film is keen to interrogate. There’s an inherent sparsity to the design; Toller’s black and white robes are matched by the Spartan aesthetics of his titular church, while the film itself employs a subtle monochrome. Rare bits of vibrancy, like the red of blood in the snow, punctuate this mundanity with jarring urgency. It bespeaks something almost perversely focussed on simplicity, over and above what complications may be so keenly ignored. Likewise, the camera has something of a passive glare; the aforementioned boxiness works hand-in-hand with a view that rarely moves, and seems reluctant to centre humans in the frame. A pivotal close-up of the good Reverend has his eyes nearly meet the line of the gaze. But the end result is false, the movement a half-squint that can’t quite align – despite its owner’s self-assurance.

Ethan Hawke, star of First Reformed.
Image by Jo Davidson / Silverhub for Sundance London

This faint, inevitable disorder in the face of icy, unimpressed authority is enthralling. All the stern formal command creates a sort of trance, any human movement at all plagued by passivity. Much the same, the structure is often side-tracked into both heady theological discussion and quiet contemplation; the mere act of two characters stopping in for a chat has rarely represented such hard-fought delight. Talk itself is part of this petty human disorder. During one such moment, Toller notes that he is pleased only by the ferocity, rather than resolution, of the argument. If the protestant ethos reflects a lack of real human agency in face of a judgemental God, then Reformed addresses the necessary fallout of that absence. The plot lacks a centre, whether in the moral or individual, Toller forever struggling to really fulfil the increasingly martyring roles he sets himself. His ascetic lifestyle consists of an unfurnished home, a private and self-flagellating diary, and the perennial hair shirt of alcohol. He’s a deeply traumatised absence in a story that needs presence. Asceticism only strips away and away, miring itself in hardship and disgust.

To this end, the central performance must be strong enough to maintain this alternately pathetic and forthright centre of antigravity. Of course, it succeeds. In a career of often-exceptional performances, Hawke manages what may be his most complex. This is a film about the circumstances of his spiral, his (quite-literal) tribulations underlining a gradual and frighteningly tangible mental break. Toller is a man in a perpetual stranglehold, torn between the worth of Calvinist teaching, and actually putting it to use. The dog collar he adamantly wears in public becomes a morbid emblem of repression; his faintly overweight body seems to bulge over it, every teaching delivered with uncertainty and something bordering on a whisper.

Supporting cast members are uniformly strong, yet exist to hover around these primary concerns. Amanda Seyfried plays the mother-to-be whose request for Toller’s aid begins the movie; subverting an easy role as the faithful to Toller’s doubting, she trusts his churchly advice only by his own assertion rather than the scripture itself. Her husband (Phillip Ettinger) is far more conflicted, possessing a pessimistic conviction that cannot be resolved by teaching; likewise, Cedric Kyles’s megachurch pastor represents the sordid unreliability of scriptural morality. Each character is their own model of uncertainty, spokes on a wheel defined by an unknowledgeable centre. The characterisation ruthlessly questions all assertions of moral righteousness, struggling between the twin poles of speaking truth to power while obeying a faith founded on the totalitarian. As a result, one might wonder whether the only answer is to forsake any definite moral pretence entirely.

THE absence hinted at is excruciatingly uncertain, ever caught in the camera’s still, claustrophobic frame

If that sounds like a fragile half-answer, it’s because First Reformed is so drastically uninterested in actually providing resolution to what it proposes. Humans are forever caught in a web of unknowable theology. An early conversation between Toller and a parishioner has him justify his faith by means of cognitive dissonance; the grounding of faith is so strong that decisions taken in its name need no rational logic. But the evil Toller gradually begins to see in the world is very real, and very quantifiable. Reformed also asks what this dissonance might mean when one half of the equation ceases to be. There might be a God, there might not; He wouldn’t care for our prevarication. So rather than assuming predestination and human inability to change, what happens if those professing a theological lack are right? More than this, what if we are already too wrapped up in cognitive dissonance to change? Though not quite outright nihilism – the questions it asks are earnest, at least striving for meaning beyond nothingness – it feels somehow adjacent to it. Truth is an excruciatingly uncertain thing, ever-absent within the camera’s still, claustrophobic frame.

Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute

One scene might trouble this solid sense of purpose and stylistic assurance. Admittedly, I’m still turning it over in my head. To spoil it would be both hard and unfair, so an outline will suffice. In a moment of particular intimacy, certain characters are embraced by a moment of transcendent magical realism, placed into a waking dream of clear thematic import. The issue with the scene is simply how out-of-step it is with the rest of the film. The tone shifts in quite a jarring manner, providing visuals almost entirely alien to the rest of the piece. Again, I don’t quite know if it works or not; tonal shifts aren’t necessarily bad, and the sheer strangeness of the thing took me aback. But it extended just beyond the comfortable, to the almost-absurd. Naturally, that outright surrealism may be the point. Such a moment has precedent, of course; Vertigo (1958) famously employed a fascinating and bizarre animated sequence. What’s more, it only compounded the film’s enigma into my mind. That intrigue is itself laudable.

So the film is, despite the aforementioned challenge, still quite exceptional. I’m weary of terms like “masterpiece”, compounding – as they do – the role of the authorial “master”. First Reformed is, however, a masterful film, perhaps deserving of the connotations of the role. It’s an open book, dedicated not to answering questions and providing clear morals but instead the very act of questioning; the absences and silences it gestures towards are sometimes harsh, but always enlightening. Conclusion is not in its interests, while second-guessing and ethical doubt are. In the process of making such a point, however, it quietly becomes one of the best films of the year. Rich in thought, loaded with cinematic texture, and host to an incredible central performance, First Reformed easily asserts itself in all its perverse, doubtful glory.

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