My friend and I did not speak when “First Reformed” ended. We remained silent for a good 5–7 minutes. This was the only reasonable reaction to what we had just witnessed. “First Reformed” is a masterpiece of character-driven drama with finely tuned elements that all contribute to its multifaceted, but still direct theme — it’s going to be very hard to get over this movie so soon.
Produced by indie-giants A24, “First Reformed” follows Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) of First Reformed Church as he deals with physical, mental, and spiritual issues already present in his life, and shaken up by a peculiar counseling session he holds with a climate change activist. The film touches on so many issues of our day — religion, spirituality, and politics come to the front — but it is mainly about the man behind the pulpit. Being a brilliant character piece, Ethan Hawke as Toller remains in every single scene; whenever you think that the plot will turn its attention to something else, the camera returns to Hawke’s face (and the sound fades out to his voice) to remind us that everything that is said and done affects him. Clearly, this was no amateur behind the camera/script; Paul Schrader, director/writer, deserves all the acclaim he is receiving — and then some — for his expert craftsmanship.
The style of the film reflects what is going on in the story — just as it should be with any movie. The whole thing is filmed in a deadpan fashion reminiscent of classic black-and-white cinematography; Rev. Toller is emotional but actively emotionless, and the ever-steady “voyeuristic” lens (in combination with a rather dull hue about the movie) similarly refrains from almost any emotion, actively choosing to let the characters take center stage. Serving this same purpose even more subtly is the absence of any music whatsoever until well over an hour into the film; when the score finally plays, it’s just an eerily hollow, one-note sustain. Here, there are no showy camera tricks, no blatantly cathartic score, just raw humanity on a cold, silver platter.
Of course, it helps that the acting is absolutely perfect. Amanda Seyfried plays the pregnant wife of the passionate activist, Mary, and she is no less complete in her performance than the titular Hawke. Both characters are written to be — as I mentioned with Toller — emotional, but actively emotionless, and the two lead actors effectively transmit this genuine struggle to the audience. Seyfried bottles herself up even at the most impactful moments that would naturally call for her to burst — she seems to be taking everything and rarely letting anything out. Similarly, it is never boring to watch Ethan Hawke (even while he is present in every scene) because he makes your mind race as it tries to figure out just what the Reverend is thinking and feeling at any given moment. Hawke remains relatively stoic for the bulk of his performance, but small shifts of expression, and even certain intonations of his voice, tantalize the audience with snippets of the deeper corners of his soul.
Reverend Toller — who ought to be “Monk” Toller since he spends his life secluded from society, his living quarters literally being in the church — is undeniably linked to another Reformer repeatedly referenced in the script: Martin Luther. Luther is known for being a troubled priest painfully fighting the reality of his own shortcomings; Rev. Toller is barely different. Both preachers’ resort/resorted to a specific manner of unleashing their inner fury against themselves: Luther was known to torture himself before he eventually found freedom in grace, but Hawke’s character finds a rather startling outlet to free his imprisoned soul once and for all.
Though all these elements are exemplary, it was the ending made the movie complete. It capitalizes beautifully on the character arcs that began developing from the very first scene, leaving the complex characters still complex, but ending with just enough thoughtful insight into their true natures. It’s the entire third act (about the last 30–45 minutes, give or take a few) that tries hardest to yell out what is actually going on within each person, but — rather cleverly — there is almost no dialogue in this final third; we are left solely to silent movement on the screen with only our thoughts to guide us. The finale itself also contributes to the fact that the movie is ultimately about Toller’s soul; it shows his final release, the only way he will be liberated from the torments of his own thoughts — the disturbing image of this final solution left me utterly speechless.
“First Reformed” is the best movie I’ve seen all year. All this being said, it isn’t a movie for everyone. Its stage-play-like demeanor may bore the masses, but take it from me, devoting time and focus to watch something as powerful as this is worth every second.