Many films have discussed the role of the church in the face of great evil, The Exorcist probably being the most notable example, or perhaps Tarkovsky's Stalker. First Reformed tackles the issue with a vice grip. Instead of substituting a fictional evil, we are met with a reality of our own making for a film filled with dread and horror.
The filmmaking must be addressed. With a compact aspect ratio, a score which rarely appears but does so to extreme effect and Paul Schrader behind the camera and script, First Reformed masters a depiction of a cold cold world. There is never any sense of warmth in First Reformed which verges on horror at many points. The aspect ratio makes us feel squashed as the cameras refuse intimacy for long periods, choosing to limit our field of view to alienate us for just that little bit longer. On the subject of the camera work, the camera remains static for long periods, excluding sudden kinetic bursts, such as the surreal scene where the camera begins to glide. Mostly, the camera chooses to rest on empty spaces, giving a sense of emptiness and a life devoid of fulfillment.
The story of First Reformed is brutally real. As aforementioned, in the face of unspeakable doom, how can one trust in the lord? When Toller discovers that even his faith has been polluted, it leads to a path of self-destruction. Yet, I never felt that his actions were confused or dazed. They seemed rational until they, suddenly, were not. Schrader, heavily pulling on Taxi Driver, makes a point of Toller's loneliness. With the Doll House sets and constant empty space, Toller seems alone in a world buys with humanity. "I am happy" Toller reassures before cutting to the image of a fallen tombstone.
With its poignant message which is chilling, First Reformed feels like freezing a bleeding gash. As the eyes of God watch over humanity's viral destruction, symbolised in an Eckleberg-esque piece of furniture, we are left with a film which cuts open a cold heart with a scalpel, showing all the arteries and veins for everyone to see.