First Reformed Review – Protestant guilt

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

I remember a point in my life when I were sure of things. Then I remember a point where I weren’t sure of anything. Then I think I realised that in an atmosphere of uncertainty, I could choose my own truths and in the acknowledgement of those the world had the possibility to become a far stranger and more liberating place. Everything seems to be going to hell pretty just about everywhere, but in creating a meaning for myself outside of that I unmoor myself.

It is easy enough to detach yourself from reality for a while. It’s already nihilistic but it stops you from becoming the stereotype, I guess. Yet at the same time, the same impulse that motivates me is the one that motivates all flat-earthers and climate change denialists who choose to live in a different world than the one that we demonstrably exist in. It’s the same one that causes all them neo-nazis to adopt a blatantly destructive ideology because it seems to afford them a modicum of power over the positions that they find themselves in.

And really, I need to at some point confront how, through my detachment, I am destroying the world. Maybe not so fast, not so aggressively, not so deliberately as many others who turn their alienation in life against the very essence itself.

But I am culpable.

I had hoped that my work might eventually someday make me internet famous. Took me far too long to realise that I don’t really have the personality for that shit. I can get through entire conversations in my personal life barely saying a single word, I am not the expressive kind, not the sharing kind, I am the verb to shrink made flesh. This ain’t a culture that particularly recognises that, and I don’t have it in me to become visible in the first place.

I often struggle with the thought that I weren’t born to live a happy life. Not everyone can be after all, the fight to survive takes it out of all of us in the end. None of us properly know our futures selves I guess, I hope they can be a better person. Otherwise, I don’t see a happy end for any of this.

Which is all to say, I get Ethan Hawke’s character in the new movie First Reformed. Paul Schrader’s best works, as both screenwriter and director have been those which directly excavate the neurosis of the contemporary world. He has the advantage of years and experience on me, it is possible that only I have gotten more neurotic with age, but it seems like the world has too.

Taxi Driver sees the need to push its character to the edge of society in order for him to become radicalised. Here Hawke plays a small town priest, he has a congregation, he plays a role in the community, the building has been there in some form or another for almost 250 years. Yet, he doesn’t need to lose any of these to feel marginalised. The stewardship of the diocese has been acquired by some megachurch, there to be a branch of its ministry.

While telling a story of Christian faith, it is not one that concerns itself with the specifics. It instead narrows down on those aspects that be present in all our lives: routine, devotion, work, identity. We see how again the intrusive noise of politicking finds its way into the life of a man who thought that following this calling would allow him to live a life sheltered from it.

Meanwhile he is called upon by a parishioner to council her husband. An activist so disturbed by what is happening to the world this he is rendered unable to even function in it. They spar and challenge and fight each other, both debating the correct reaction to a world that finds itself to be fundamentally broken. The man is not a religious one, there are two options left to him. Either break something or break himself.

Schrader and his cinematographer Alexander Dynan paint the portrait of a listless world. Their sets are stark and they wash the colour out of the image until it is almost greyscale. They shoot in that 4:3 ratio that, similarly to Kelly Reichardt’s equally apocalyptic Meek’s Cutoff, serves to isolate and trap these people until their loneliness becomes a tangibly oppressive force.

This is compounded by these great performances, centrally Hawke himself and Amanda Seyfried as the activist’s wife. They construct these two who are so gripped and defined by their sadness and the overwhelming dread that they are forced to confront and yet who are unable to share it with anyone. Pitting them against the likes of Cedric ‘the Entertainer’ Kyles, another reverend who wants to help, and tries, but is unable to access the depths of the fear that they are unable to articulate.

It is unrelenting and unsettling, all the way up through its final moments it refuses to give out. It is an assault, often loud and unsubtle in its imagery, didactic in its argumentation, but shot through with presence and humanity and urgency. It cares, it makes me want to care, I just need to find a way that I can do so healthily.

First Reformed is currently screening in UK cinemas.

Five Stars
Image courtesy of A24


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