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Schrader delivers again with ‘First Reformed’

| Thursday, August 23, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

Reverend Ernst Toller, as portrayed by Ethan Hawke in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” is a man who has been divorced, whose son is dead and who lives in relative isolation. His life is not particularly out of the ordinary. Couples frequently get divorced, young people often pass away too soon and isolation, although not often a chosen form of existence, is something that affects a great deal of people.

What makes Reverend Toller’s life worth one hour and 53 minutes of your time, however, is not its commonality. It’s the fact that his profession is a religious one and that instead of seeking consolation for his divorce, lost child and isolated life, he gives that consolation to others. For the nearly the entirety of the film, Reverend Toller bottles up his emotions, urges and wants. And when bottles become full, they almost always tend to break.

These internalized passions of Reverend Toller, in all their uniqueness, naturally draw comparison to those of the protagonist of Paul Schrader’s most famous film — Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.”

Reverend Toller is an outwardly calm minister; Travis Bickle is an outwardly calm taxi driver. Toller gives consolation to his ailing parishioners; Bickle gives consolation to those passengers who choose to trust him. Yet by the end of “First Reformed,” Ethan Hawke is bound in barbed wire, bleeding through his clerical attire. By the end of “Taxi Driver,” Travis Bickle is a mohawked, anarchist shell of his former self who almost succeeds in political assassination.

They both desperately want to live normal lives and maintain external calmness, but the isolation and subsequent overthinking that they almost constantly endure brings out the worst in them. It’s one thing to sit with your violent thoughts next to a psychiatrist, but it’s completely different when the only thing you have next to you is a whiskey bottle or a taxi seat.

“First Reformed,” however, is not merely a self-obsessed, “Taxi Driver” spinoff that strictly focuses on the dark, carnal thoughts of a minister. Those thoughts exist and certainly manifest themselves physically in the film, but for the large majority of the film they rest on the periphery.

The film is almost entirely about Reverend Toller’s day-to-day life — his planning for the 250th anniversary of the Dutch Reformed Church he oversees, his confessional and the parishioners that visit him in it and his trashcans that he fills with empty whiskey bottles.

“First Reformed” is a film that in no way attempts to use action or suspense to keep you in your seat. Instead, Schrader drops hints and blurs the ordinary for a second or two to make sure that you don’t get up and leave.

It’s the man who tells Reverend Toller how long life on Earth is possible before climate change ends it, it’s the choir director who is much more sexual towards Toller than she should be, it’s Reverend Toller puking blood instead of bile, it’s the contrast between his small, historical church and the nearby over the top megachurch. These small, almost unnoticeable details that drive Reverend Toller to the brink are what keep you watching, not some car crash, gunshot or bloodstain. It’s hiding the devil in the details, and its something that Paul Schrader does incredibly well.

Recognizing this character building and incredible attention to detail, however, is not meant to downplay the efforts of the lead actors and actresses of “First Reformed.” They give those details their significance and allow those characters to develop. But just as Travis Bickle was much more a creation of Schrader’s script than Al Pacino’s acting; so too, the existence of Reverend Toller and the other characters are much more results of Schrader’s meticulous writing and direction than the efforts of any actor or actress. Any number of actors could have portrayed Reverend Toller in “First Reformed,” but only a screenwriter and director as storied and skilled in building complex, troubled characters as Paul Schrader could have molded them out of words and actions.

“First Reformed” is a film that was released in May and isn’t in theaters anymore. But it’s a film that is still worth watching and one that has only done more to bolster the reputation of a company. Whether it is put on streaming services in the coming months or available at a local movie rental store, it’s worth a few dollars, the click of the button and just under two hours of your time.

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