Friday, 13 July 2018

First Reformed: God's lonely clergyman

Father Toller is in Hell (figuratively, not literally). He's dying inside (figuratively and literally). A crisis of faith spreads within him like a cancer, killing off his spirit while actual cancer kills off his body, and he's dipping his toast in whiskey in an alcoholic inversion of holy communion. Welcome to the laugh-a-minute world of Paul Schrader's First Reformed, which finally answers the all too infrequently-asked question: what if Travis Bickle were a priest in 2017?

Full disclosure: I've never seen a Paul Schrader-directed film until now. I've no idea how this compares to his usual visual style, but as a fan of his collaborations as a writer with Martin Scorsese I can spot within First Reformed the DNA of Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Raging Bull and Bringing Out The Dead from the furthest pew from the pulpit. That internal conflict, the despair and rage that come from impotence and failure, and the drive to cleanse the soul via good old-fashioned extreme mortification of the flesh are the arterial flow of Schrader's best-known work. (If that somehow passes you by, Travis Bickle's iconic Alka-Seltzer fizzing away in a glass of water reappears here as Pepto-Bismol in bourbon.) First Reformed might be a more measured, sombre piece for having Schrader behind the camera rather than Scorsese, but it's no less thought-provoking, even for heathens like me.

Shot in austere 1.37:1, drained of most of its colour and almost devoid of camera movement, Schrader's aesthetic mimics the abstinent life Ethan Hawke's Toller has chosen. Everything is shot against a flat wall or the disappearing perspective of a corridor or room, as if the 90-degree rigidity of Toller's life has shaped his very surroundings. He's trapped himself in a cellular structure of devotion to God and the walls are closing in. So when his festering spiritual doubt and general sense of inadequacy are fuelled by a parishioner who points out the unbearable shitness of being, it's little wonder that Toller sets off on a dark path, with only Amanda Seyfried's Mary (obviously she's called Mary) and his diary of increasingly disturbing thoughts - which he can no longer confess to God - as his companions.
Exploring and exploiting the hypocrisy of the church's inextricable links to Big Business, First Reformed is part religious critique, part environmental plea, and swings from subtle to sledgehammer throughout its running time. Why doesn't God have anything to say about the destruction of His creation by climate change? Is it all part of His plan? Toller doesn't know, but he can see in eco-terrorism the same self-sacrifice that the Jesuit priests of Scorsese's Silence suffered to defend their faith. Set pointedly in Trump's America, the film depicts a bubbling liberal fury that can't be quelled despite every attempt at tolerance.

Ethan Hawke is terrific here, the lines of his face like scars for every soul he's tried to save. It's a measured, calm performance, but there's never any doubt about his doubt. Each pause he takes before answering a tricky question betrays Toller's mounting panic that he's in the wrong job, while opposite him, Mary's fragility and determination are enhanced by Amanda Seyfried's then-real-life pregnancy. Toller preaches that life is equal parts despair and hope, and it's impossible not to see him and Mary as the two parts of that equation.

First Reformed builds menacingly towards a nail-biting climax, but don't go in expecting an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Like this year's other Taxi Driver-referencing slow-burner You Were Never Really Here, this is a film of nuance and intelligence, of originality and provocation. It stays with you in the same way, making you want to reach out and give its protagonist a big hug and tell him it's going to be OK, even though it clearly absolutely is not. And if you're like me, it might even make you want to seek out more of Paul Schrader's work. Anyone give us a lend of Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist?

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