Blu-ray Review: First Reformed (2017)

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There's something immediately lonely about Robert De Niro in that Taxi Driver hallway, something so Christ-like about Last Temptation's man on the cross – Willem Dafoe – that you know in this world he must be a Light Sleeper, and something potent enough about Ethan Hawke's voice and speech rhythms that make you think he could've been a priest.

And it's a role the actor has said he wanted to play in real life, had – fortunately for us – he not received an altogether different calling to perform. It's also a thing that he has in common with his First Reformed writer/director Paul Schrader, who grew up as a self-described "church kid" and even entered the seminary (like Martin Scorsese, who directed Schrader's most iconic scripts) before he too left for a life in film.

Schrader's first screenplay aside from his adaptation of Christ and an unproduced transcendental work he penned forty years ago that deals with the struggles faced by a man of faith, in First Reformed, Hawke's Reverend Toller carries on the legacy of a Schrader leading man.

A loner, a light sleeper, a man in his room – at the start of the film Toller begins keeping a diary he intends to destroy in a year. Evaluating what we come to recognize as a Christ-like existential crisis of faith after Mary, a beautiful young, pregnant parishioner (played by Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her troubled husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), we learn fairly quickly that Toller is one man upon whom life has indeed taken a toll.

Much like Robert De Niro's bickering traveler Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Schrader has always loved using wordplay in his names. Film as a treasure hunt, sure enough in and beneath every frame, Reformed drips with enough symbolism that with only a mere two years of Catholic school more than twenty years ago, I was able to identify at least some of it.

From Seyfried's unexpectedly pregnant Mary to a reference to Joseph, a lustful Esther, and most crucially Michael – whose archangel-like fight to protect the environment from hypocritical corporations including the one that almost single-handedly keeps Toller's small historic church financially afloat raises revelatory, Revelations worthy reactions in Hawke's reverend – the excellent First must play even better on a second or third viewing.

In other words? It's Schrader's Stations of the Cross and a film about which the less you know going in the better.

With Hawke sharing a name with the German expressionist playwright Ernst Toller who met with tragedy (and whose life might help you see First Reformed's ambiguous ending in a different light), the unadorned, straightforward work is as old-fashioned as Toller's eponymous two-hundred and fifty year old, Dutch colonial First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York.

Using very little music and mostly static shots save for the glorious bookends of the film and one utterly thrilling, expressionistic sequence infused with transcendentalism (the kind the real Toller would've loved) which leads us perfectly into Reformed's third act, Reformed is a square framed Bergmanesque production. It's also that rare film where there is an actual reason for the wash of color and light visible in each shot.

Reminiscent of The White Ribbon in spirit and style, First Reformed is essentially a black and white film in color. Using all of the cinematic tools at Schrader's disposal to underscore First's questions of conscience and faith, the shades in Toller's formerly black and white but increasingly gray world are muted throughout, save for a few key moments when the ethereal Seyfried manages to throw back the shutters and let in the allegorical sunlight.

Anchored by Hawke, who like De Niro and Dafoe in Schrader's works before him at last gets a chance to turn up the dial in what was already inside of him, First Reformed makes the most of the brooding, wise beyond his years, pastoral philosopher that's been there since Reality Bites and Before Sunrise.

A quality that drives one of my best friends nuts but thrills his fans, while the thing I like to call Hawke's Hawkeness is on full display here, it's amazing to see – especially given the skills of the man penning the script – just how much isn't even spoken but instinctual, internalized, and evident in not Dafoe this time but Hawke's light sleeping eyes.

While the film itself might divide those looking for easy answers, it features not only one of the actor's most powerful performances but one on the opposite end of the spectrum from his delightful shaggy dog, laid back rocker turn in 2018's Juliet, Naked (which I also saw for the first time and reviewed this week).

Serving up an eye-opening commentary track with the helmer on the newly released Blu-ray (that's essentially film school in a box), Reformed is a daring American picture that you'll immediately want to discuss.

Schrader's strongest film as a writer/director since the underrated Affliction, while blessing his fans with another one of what Travis Bickle called God's lonely men (only this time literally), he's created a work that will be remembered as one of not just 2018's but Schrader's very best.

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