First Reformed is Paul Shrader’s newest film, and despite its Christian trappings and stoic solemnities, this movie is fucking lit. It’s been a minute since I’ve left the theater as sucker-punched and soul gazed as I was two nights ago, and though this film is almost assuredly destined for VOD obscurity, it would be a sin not to sing it the praises it deserves.
If you don’t know, Paul Shrader was the scribe behind movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and, I guess, The Canyons. I’ll admit I’m not completely up to snuff on this guy’s artistic intentions, but he strikes me as someone who takes his cues from theater gods like Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee, rather than his cinematic counterparts, such as, let’s say, Billy Wilder or Sidney Lumet.
I mention Sidney Lumet, because the last film he made before he passed was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. That film also features an uncharacteristically dark turn from Ethan Hawke; however, I have to say that Hawke’s performance in First Reformedeclipses his earlier work there, at least when measured in units of bleak gravitas.
It’s hard to understand how the actor who recently delivered the kind of everyday naturalism at display in films like Boyhood and Before Midnight is somehow also responsible for portraying the towering, world-weighted, eloquent masochist that is Reverend Toller. Hawke has character-control over his diction and tone that I didn’t know he had; he knows how to lift his brow in such a way that mirrors and mocks the intellectually pretentious; he can pour a whisky with equal parts disdain and delight, just as a serious drinker does. He gives you chills. I’m not sure how else you put it, but Hawke is an artist, approaching the same compelling caliber as Christopher Plummer, or even Philip Seymour Hoffman. Without a commanding lead, this film doesn’t work at all. Luckily, Hawke surpasses his task.
I won’t summarize the plot – I’m not sure how much good it would do – but at large, the film is a portrait of a man and his descent into the extremities of his convictions. The major theme of the festival is quickly becoming climate change, and here we get to delve into the obsessive fringes of environmental activism. In this way, the film’s spiritual companion is Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves; the two films also mostly relinquish the need for a score, trusting that silence is a better builder of tension.
The dialogue is note perfect. Everyone has something interesting to say, but they speak with their own voices. Shrader respects the intelligence of his characters, which is not some small task when your lot consists of tycoons and terrorists. Two days later, some turns of phrases are still swishing around my brain, the perennial effect of great playwriting.
By the third act, Shrader takes some chances; there’s one scene in particular that employs cinematic psychedelia, and you’ll either love it or hate it. I welcomed these risks, as I felt that after maintaining restraint for most the film’s length, he had earned the opportunity to get weird. But another chance he took, perhaps the most stupefying one of all, was on Cedric Kyles. Yes, Cedric the Entertainer plays a reverend as well, basically Hawke’s boss, and to my delight, he sticks it. I cannot possibly fathom how this casting came to be, but Kyles indulges not a lick. One of the great pleasures is seeing someone anew, and watching Kyles gracefully tussle with Hawkes in theological sport was a brand of sublimity all to its own.
So, even though this film is at once too small and too despairing for it likely to get a wide release, I would really recommend seeing it if the occasion arises. It’s a downright disturbing experience, even one that puts the world at stake; it reminds you what film can do.