Paul Schrader’s audacious spiritual meditation, First Reformed is a complicated dissertation on the utter despair of bereavement and inevitable corruption, both of the realm of the ethereal and the physical domain. These conflicting ideas dovetail throughout, signifying a preternatural union of metaphysical concepts that rest within us, challenging day to day notions of both personal sanctuary and philosophical impotence. This a masterful, yet flawed, offering, but its flaws are essential, artistic imperfections whose presence only further Schrader’s intent.
The influence of Bresson, Bergman, Ozu, and Dreyer, are wielded within a prison of self-immolation. Schrader’s religious quandaries abound within his fabled filmography, yet here they are more exposed, indicating the vulnerability of a creator whose life has led to a series of titanic questions, the nature of faith and worship. Ethan Hawke’s career defining performance is emblematic of these conceits, a quiet and sad shepherd of a fleeting idea more than a traditional flock. Toller writes in his journal, drinks his whiskey with abandon, and endlessly inhabits a garden of self-loathing, a truth wisely highlighted in one of the film’s greatest exchanges. Yet again, the concept of nothingness, an incomprehensible miasma that hungers to be filled with life, or at least the memory of it haunts every frame. The result is a throne of consumption and a reckless embrace of the purest form of protest.
This notion, and its apocalyptic implications are then upended in what is sure to be one of the most divisive endings to ever grace the screen. The surface read will most likely repel any viewer looking for a clean sense of closure. However, the final sequence is perhaps Schrader’s most sublime, courageous rebellion in his career. This is the end of the affair, a transcendental mutation into the beyond and the film’s outright refusal to explain itself emulates the nature of belief in the supernatural. Every person, spiritual or not, entertains ideas of what comes next. However, the distraction of Toller’s failed endeavors is the catalyst. Filling the hole of purpose with idealized violence, a token of sacrifice might be the key to personal salvation, but Schrader has no interest in expected resolution. The result is a sequence that will confound and inspire audiences for decades.
Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is framed in a boxed, 4:3 aspect ratio. When coupled with the vintage presentation of the credits, the imagery feels expectant, almost hungry. Where Unsane’s similar visual oeuvre emulated panic and danger, here it cements the constant feeling of imprisonment that pervades First Reformed. This a locked chamber of a film, and its denizens are lost in a haze of possibility, regret, and hubris. The wonder of the film is in how Schrader confronts these forces rather than shy away, the sum of which is a glacial foray into the ruin of a soul who once had purpose.
In theaters now and coming soon to digital on demand, First Reformed will claim gold this awards season. Easily Schrader’s best film and arguably Hawke’s greatest performance, this is a tempest of art house sensibility and lamentations for neo-American society. Somber in its presentation, dangerous in its revelations, this is an unparalleled cinematic experience.