What an experience this was! I had high hopes going in but little did I know just how much hope (and despair) was going to play into this incredible film!
The first thing that struck me about Paul Schrader’s latest was how mundane it was initially. A pastor going through a crisis of faith and struggling with his demons whilst saving face and supporting others however what then transpires is something extraordinary through this mundanity. Just as the film eloquently explains that you can’t have hope without despair, it is also true that you cannot have the extraordinary without the ordinary.
Whilst I am not a religious man at all, and I would not consider myself an environmentalist per se, this film offers you so much to think about, and not in the preachy way that I was initially expecting. Few modern films take spirituality as seriously or as thoughtfully as First Reformed and it gives us a rounded and fleshed out character that I found genuine and intriguing.
The other thing that struck me as making this film stand out as one of the year’s best is the filmmaking craft behind it. Shot in a 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio and with a very bleak colour palette, it felt like I was watching something different, like the normal cinematic rules did not apply. This was strangely exciting and it reminded me a lot of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story in that respect. It was also helped in great part by Schrader’s very text heavy script, with long and thoughtful conversations between it’s characters and with biting and honest narration from Reverend Toller’s diary, expertly delivered by a phenomenal Ethan Hawke. One particular scene where Toller and one of his congregation fight their corners on religion and environmentalism was so exhilarating that I couldn’t help getting caught up in it and genuinely considering both of their plights.
This is another huge win for A24, another incredible performance for Ethan Hawke (potentially even a career best), and, in my opinion, the best work Paul Schrader has done since 2002’s Auto Focus! It won’t be for everyone but then again, Schrader never is. I am going to give it some time before I experience this feature again but I can guarantee that it will be on my mind many many times between now and then!
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