"I know that nothing can change. I know there is no hope."
A man sits at a simple desk recording his thoughts of isolation and despair in a journal. His only companions in this task are the whiskey in his glass and the bottle next to that. He's journaling to find meaning... purpose. God. The man is Father Toller, played by Ethan Hawke (TRAINING DAY). Toller has lost his faith due to a failed marriage caused by a family tragedy and his own failing health. He has taken a position at First Reformed, the oldest church in the area, kept open as more of a tourist attraction than a house of worship. Toller is simply going through the motions of his life, hoping his journal rekindles his spirituality until a member of his small congregation, Mary played by Amanda Seyfried (HBO's BIG LOVE), comes to him with a unique problem: she's pregnant and her husband, a radical environmentalist, wants her to abort the child due to the hopeless state of the world. She asks the priest to sit with her husband and counsel him. Toller agrees and in doing so is gradually pulled into a bleak spiral of hopelessness, anger, and violence.
This is the set up for writer/director Paul Schrader's (writer of TAXI DRIVER) new film, FIRST REFORMED. Schrader has long been fascinated with broken men raging against injustices, real or perceived, and Father Toller fits neatly into that mold of Schrader protagonists that includes the likes of Charles Rane (ROLLING THUNDER) and Travis Bickle. The specters of those characters hang over the film as we watch Toller journaling alone or driving at night as Hawke's reserved narration plays over these scenes of solitude. The difference is where those earlier Schrader characters found cathartic release from the trigger of a gun, Toller finds no release through violence. When he takes action if feels like a scream of impotent rage at the awfulness before him. A rage that is just as likely to destroy him as anyone else.
Hawke plays Toller with a reserved melancholy that makes his actions as the film progress all the more shocking. It's a powerful, understated performance that Hawke pulls off beautifully. If there is any glimmer of hope in the film, it is personified by Seyfried's Mary who is trying to reach out to Toller as he reaches out to her husband. The film is very much their's alone, everyone else is just background noise to their volatile journey for meaning and reason.
Schrader shoots the film in the unusual aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and uses predominately little camera movement. This creates a feeling of being trapped in the frame as Toller feels trapped by circumstance and the indifference around him.
This is a deeply challenging film that is sure to fascinate some and fully enrage others. At the preview screening I attended, the packed audience was audibly upset by the bizarre, grotesque, and ambiguous ending. They were caught off guard by the dark places FIRST REFORMED goes. This is Paul Schrader at his most angry. It is a grim statement on hopelessness and how we often fight against that feeling despite our better judgment because if we don't roar at the mounting darkness, it will consume us fully.