Paul Schrader dares to confront environmental extremism in First Reformed

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By Zach Horowitz ’19

Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” film delivers an anxiety-inducing, enigmatic viewing experience for theatre-goers. In fact, it felt like I was watching a modern-day version of Schrader’s classic, “Taxi Driver”.

“First Reformed” features actor Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, a pastor of a 250-year-old wooden church, which gives the film it’s name and is well known for its history as a stop on the underground railroad. Toller keeps a diary, and narrates throughout the span of the film. His daily entries are interrupted by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a parishioner who seeks the advice of the pastor, fearing her husband is becoming a radical environmentalist and could risk getting in trouble. Mary and her husband are also debating whether or not to have a child. This debate is occurring because they are not sure if their child would be raised in an environmentally ravished world.

As the film progresses, Toller, who can’t seem to put the bottle down, mourns the death of his son. He soon inherits the beliefs of Mary’s husband and becomes obsessed with environmental collapse.

Like many of his other films, including “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo,” director Schrader creates disturbing images that are not easy to watch. But the film still shows the quaint, yet provocative theme of faith, in a world of tragedy.

Schrader’s artistic choice to shoot the film in the 1.33 aspect ratio, which is rarely used in modern day productions, puts the film in a square.. The square film presents the metaphor of Toller being “boxed” in, in multiple aspects.

The film challenges the antithetical themes of environmentalism and mental illness, and Hawke, while often alone on screen, displays a conflict with himself unlike any I’ve ever seen. He delivers a powerful performance, expressing an inner war with himself.

At the end of the day, I give this film a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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