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TIFF 2017: ‘First Reformed’ Is A Blistering, Bleak Contemplation On Humanity’s Frailty

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed turns briskly inward with the desire of Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) to write a completely honest account of his isolated life and thoughts over the course of a year. Loss has bound him to faith and trying to help others, and unburdening himself begets a frenzied descent into obsession, as well as a last-ditch effort to make even the smallest dent in humanity’s degradation of the earth. It’s a remarkable tale of desperation, self-hatred, and empathy that results in a peculiar afterglow of enlightened madness. Schrader’s effort is a furious amalgamation of emotion that lays bare the nature of failure against a vast, largely uncaring universe.

Hawke’s self-loathing is palpable as a man who seeks redemption and comfort for others while actively driving himself into the earliest possible grave. Ignoring warning signs from his body that his health is breaking down, he drinks to punish himself and to bathe in the the guilt that he has long internalized from being the one responsible for sending his late son off to war. His small church has a flock that hovers in the single digits, apart from curious tourists who feel drawn to the history of the space. Not being tethered to much responsibility, he has ample time to contemplate the horrors of existence, and to encourage others to carry on even though he himself has long ago given up. The story wades into mental instability early on, but never doubts the good intentions of a main character that clings to the smallest inkling of positivity, even as he savagely tears himself down at every turn.

The monotony of his pitiful life is disrupted by the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who implores him to counsel her depressed environmental activist husband. The stranger engages Toller’s tormented mind, and turns his guilt towards another subject: rapid environmental destruction at the hands of humankind. Toller plunges further into himself while latching onto the activist’s mindset with a renewed — albeit confused — purpose in life.

Hawke’s haggard appearance and hell-bent demeanor are disquietly riveting. The acceleration of Toller’s thinking and his philosophical alignment with radical activists doesn’t halt his drinking or the neglect of his overall health, and not having anything to hold him down or back, he drowns himself and the audience in dark thoughts, with only slight moments of reprieve here and there. The cinematography is simultaneously dazzling and suffocating as we await the Reverend Toller’s increasingly unhinged decisions. The unpredictability of the story coupled with its off-putting subject matter make First Reformed not just an engaging watch, but a melancholic treat capable of burying the viewer in existential delight and dread.

First Reformed is sometimes preachy about the environment, but it so often leads you alone with Toller’s bottomless anguish that one can forgive the sanctimonious tone that takes you briefly away from the depths of his misery. He becomes fully engaged with the science behind climate change and the facts that no one can dispute, craving transparency only to discover mere cowards looking out for themselves. Finding out that his church has been sullied by the greed of corporate interests who show no concern for the planet or each other sends his already brittle temperament into a tailspin. It’s a welcome distraction that attacks the hypocrisy of churches that cash in on religion while selling out people’s well-being. Less of an indictment on faith itself (although there are some choice lines about organized religion) than an evaluation of how humans have sold paradise for poison, Schrader builds sympathy for the cumulative psychological toll that cataclysm can bring about for conscientious people.

Toller so vehemently rejects any concern for himself that he cruelly lashes out at his well-meaning colleague, Esther (Victoria Hill), who shows him affection and dogs him about how his doctor’s visits have gone. Seyfried, while playing innocent and frightened, displays a hurt tenderness that rings true even if everything about her character can be fully distilled down to her interactions with her husband and the Reverend.

Schrader’s unflinching direction begets a painful and difficult watch as Hawke disintegrates physically and mentally before our eyes. A bleak, tough take on the suffering we can self-inflict in our constant search for higher truth, First Reformed’s provocative content agitates as much as it fulfills with a sense of anxious wonder.

  • Lane Scarberry

The 42nd annual Toronto International Film Festival is scheduled to be held from 7 to 17 September 2017.

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