Writer/director Paul Schrader, the mastermind behind the screenplay of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, has continued his exceptional storytelling by writing and directing his newest film “First Reformed”. The film follows the life of Reverend Toller, the priest of a longstanding historic church that the film is named after. Toller has had a harsh life after losing his son in the war along with a divorce that followed, all leading to a severe drinking problem. He then meets a young woman named Mary, whose husband Michael suffers from severe depression due to his hatred of society’s cause of global warming. After Toller’s meeting with him, his life seems to take an even darker turn as we witness the emotional struggle and character arc Reverend Toller goes through.
As a character study, the film is actually quite similar to “Taxi Driver”. In the classic Scorsese film we follow Travis Bickle, a nighttime taxi driver in New York City whose loathing and disgust with the streets of New York City begin the consume him, all while he attempts to rescue an underage prostitute from ruining her life. That same idea is written into this film as we witness the individuals and surroundings in Toller’s life that affect his personality and mental stability. The similarities are uncanny, especially towards the end, but that doesn’t come as a surprise given the name of the talented filmmaker.
Reverend Toller is played superbly by Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”, “The Before Trilogy”). Hawke seems to be the go-to actor for indie/character study films. “The Before Trilogy” for example shows us the blossoming of a relationship and the emotional struggles that come with falling in love. Through those films we witness a relationship through the ups and downs, just as we observe Toller’s life through its intricacies. Schrader gets a stellar performance out of Hawke, something that clearly isn’t too difficult to achieve, given the underappreciated actor’s success and talent. The notable supporting performance comes from Amanda Seyfried as Mary. As an underrated actress as well, her performance is definitely one of her more ranged ones.
The film has an original directorial sense to it and is shot similarly to “A Ghost Story” with the ends of the shots being cut off leaving two thirds of the screen visible for the audience. Some may find this difficult to adjust to, although through the experience of “First Reformed” its seems to come with ease.
“First Reformed” is quite bleak, even visually. The scenes are darkly lit reflecting the film’s somber message. Just as the lighting, the film itself darkens emotionally as the runtime goes on, like a dimly lit candle slowly burning out. It takes quite some time to figure what the film is saying but giving away the meaning of the film could ruin the plot for those who haven’t seen it. Simply put, it deals with many complicated themes as it’s quite philosophical in one way, and more ambiguous in another. All in all however, it’s mainly about the mental change of a priest who discovers that the world is much darker than he once believed.
Paul Schrader’s newest project is a unique cinematic experience and one that deserves to be seen. With the stellar performances, unique style and plot, the film begs for attention in a world filled with popular action-thrillers and superhero films. Giving this film a chance can open eyes to the uniqueness and talent that goes into some of the best indie films.
Rated R for some disturbing violent images