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Review: First Reformed

Went over to Angelika to catch a screening of First Reformed.

I’ve mentioned before that certain movies can function as a Rosetta Stone of sorts, illuminating a particular filmmaker’s entire body of work; The Shape of Water, for instance, allowed me to better appreciate Guillermo del Toro’s less obvious recurring themes, while Inglourious Basterds exemplifies Quentin Tarantino’s approach to onscreen bloodshed. In a similar vein, First Reformed has provided me with a reliable template for summarizing the vast majority of Paul Schrader’s work: “[Actor] plays a [profession] that goes insane and [act of violence].”

In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays a disturbed New York City cabbie that goes insane and shoots up a brothel after failing to assassinate a politician.

In American Gigolo, Richard Gere plays a male escort that goes insane and drops the two-faced pimp that framed him for murder off a high-rise balcony.

In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Ken Ogata plays a militant right wing novelist that goes insane and commits ritual suicide following a botched coup.

And in his latest theatrical release, Ethan Hawke plays a sickly minister that goes insane and… well, I don’t want to reveal too much.

Schrader clearly has a favorite story arc, but he’s always had a talent for finding variations on that basic formula. Thankfully, while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Taxi Driver and Mishima, First Reformed is closer in quality to Affliction and Light Sleeper than the irredeemably abysmal The Canyons, delivering the best character study the writer/director has crafted in a long, long time.

By day, Hawke’s Reverend Toller preaches to a tiny congregation in an historic church, counsels the more troubled members of his flock, and sells overpriced souvenirs to tourists; at night, however, he wrestles with his own doubts about his role in God’s grand design, guzzling hard liquor like it’s Gatorade and committing his shameful innermost thoughts to a private journal. As expected, Schrader avoids excessive stylistic flair (following the lead of his idols, Bresson and Ozu), instead allowing his actors to do the heavy lifting, but he does utilize a few subtle visual techniques to convey his protagonist’s emotional state, such as framing him in oppressively symmetrical compositions, or using images of bare, vacant rooms to reflect the emptiness he feels in his soul.

I could actually see myself owning a home video copy of First Reformed—which is more than I can say about a lot of Schrader’s recent efforts.

[Originally written May 20, 2018.]

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