Love or rather the need for it can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes the need for love can be at the root of the self-destructive behavior. Couple that with the confining restrictions of religion and you may begin to understand Reverent Ernst Toller, the central figure of Paul Schrader's excellent First Reformed. From the opening shot that fades in from black to reveal a tiny glowing cross and then more fully the white chapel of the film's setting, it is clear that Toller is tormented, living in darkness with only a sliver of hope.
Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend and gives one of his best performances to date. He constantly embodies a man who must remain happy and hopeful to represent the power of faith and whose insides are rotting, both literally and figuratively, on the inside.
When a pregnant woman Mary(Amanda Seyfried) approaches him to talk to her depressed husband, he seems to immediately resonates with the man, Michael (Phillip Ettinger). Michael is a radical activist who is struggling with the idea of bringing a life into a world that is on the brink of destruction. Toller and Michael engage in deep conversation about faith, hope and despair. Toller keeps a journal that we hear in voice-over, giving us insight into his feelings. He describes the exchange as exhilarating. When
Michael commits suicide, Toller is left to wrestle with Michael's beliefs of the world. He begins to ask "Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?"
First Reformed is a fascinating character study about a man whose grief led him to God and yet whose grief still eats away at him. Toller is an alcoholic and a lost soul. He feels like a character only Schrader could create, even feeling like his most famous creation Travis Bickle at times. Toller finds new purpose with Mary, now a widow, and the two form an unlikely bond.
Hawke excels at depicting the internal struggle of a man whose faith may be standing in the way of him healing. It is love that ultimately saves him, not his faith. First Reformed may start out as another film about a troubled white man transforms into a brutally honest look at the depression that escalates into a violent spiritual unraveling. The film's tight 1.37:1 aspect ration seems to embody the confined nature of Toller's state of mind. Alexander Dynan's framing often seems to leave room for the presence of God.
First Reformed is a movie that lives with you long after the credits roll. I had an emotional wallop of a reaction 24 hours after seeing it. It is a remarkable achievement that feels like a high-water mark for Hawke and a welcomed return to form for Schrader.