Saturday, June 2, 2018

Review: "First Reformed" is Schrader's Unnerving, Nihilistic View of Grappling with Faith

Scene from First Reformed
The latest film from director and writer Paul Schrader is a war for balance. Early on in the film, it's established that one cannot have hope without despair. So is the struggle of Toller (Ethan Hawke), a priest about to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the First Reformed church. It's a place that's meant to bring hope, but what happens when Toller's life is nothing but despair, drawing him to alcoholism and an overwhelming sense that the Earth will perish? Schrader's vision of faith is a classic sense of nihilism, capturing what happens when despair wins the war. By the end, the film has created a scenario that would take even the most devoted viewer want to believe in hope, even as it it creates a vision of despair so uncomfortable that it's both antagonistic and blissful. 

Having a career spanning over 40 years, Schrader knows how to crank symbolism into every scene. The story centers around a year in which Toller writes in a diary. He wants to believe that every word and error will produce a deeper understanding of himself. It is a symbol of his faith, and it rarely distracts from this early on, even as the hell starts to form. His body is failing him, and a family that he mentors goes down a dark path. As things start to veer into unknowning doom, the pages become ripped from his notebook, finding an edited draft to be more effective. But what is his faith then if he gets to pick and choose what is in the book? What does anything mean if he knows from the start that he is going to burn this project? It's a pain that wears over him in a more spiritual sense, in his everyday actions as he has no choice but to buy into everyone else's delusions.

But why celebrate First Reformed's 250th anniversary? On its surface, it's an image of hope where everyone gathers every week for prayer and services. However, the history becomes ripe with despair, as the adjacent graveyard decomposes with gravestones falling over. Even in its history, its symbol of salvation as part of the Underground Railroad is undermined by the reality that slaves had to hide in a basement. There's no escape from despair, even in a church that's supposed to unify and bring everyone together. It's an irony that defines Toller's life, especially as he becomes a figure of woe in his simple living conditions. Being that close to hope has not done him any justice. Instead, it's brought him despair that only continues to get worse. It creates the question: what's the point? Why believe in God at all? 

The one saving grace is Mary (Amanda Seyfried), whose pregnancy draws Toller into her life. With a name reminiscent of the virgin mother, she is the beacon of hope amid a world that's falling apart. Toller's growing concern for the world falling apart only worsens as the dots get closer together. She is the one who attends church, finding value in prayer and believing the best in people. Seyfried gives one of her best performances here by playing a restrained, observant type of hope that is natural to the character. With Hawke's emotional deterioration counteracting her own struggles, it shows another reality. Both Mary and Toller have lost something in this story, but she has yet to resort to self-destructive delusions. She holds out hope that her child will provide some deeper satisfaction; something that is already lost in Toller's life.

First Reformed feels like it was created to defeat the audience's soul, or at least reappraise what faith means. Unlike most battles with faith, even in recent examples like former collaborator Martin Scorsese's excellent Silence, the answer doesn't produce something uplifting and profound. It creates concern, and one that shows how hopeless things can get for someone whose battle with hope and despair leans towards the latter. The closer to the closing credits that things get, the more bleak that Schrader's writing is. He's very much about being honest in this depiction, finding that not everyone is meant for happiness. It is an unpleasant film, and one that comes across as hostile. Yet it's the only spiritual film to address how the real world can impact, or even ruin, a person's judgment of themselves as well as their view of the future. It doesn't denounce God, but instead wonders what he's been up to.

While Hawke has been turning in a large amount of great performances lately, this may be up there as one of his very best. In his moments of doubt, he captures an unwavering sense of despair in his voice. Schrader's dialogue is full of philosophical debates that may be too adult for certain audiences. It doesn't have all the answers, and instead finds a picture of faith that is shattering. Its ending plays one of two ways, capturing either a moment of redemption or hope in a disturbing life choice. Either way, this is an excellent example of the quiet, nuanced nihilism that Schrader brings to his work and forces the viewer to grapple with. It's an astounding achievement likely to provoke as well as disturb. It will make you wonder how valuable hope is, which in some ways makes the film perversely happy. It's one that refuses to be forgotten, though for what reasons will be based on how strong your connection to faith and sanity actually is. 

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