We’re all just one thing—when the world suffers, it manifests itself in the individual as well, whether it be through a disease of the body or the mind, or as an unease of some other kind, and I really liked how First Reformed drew that parallel. I’m not usually one for movies with a message, but the environmental plea is weaved into this so organically and intelligently that it’s very touching. Although we see Ethan Hawke’s pastor go to the doctor, we never hear of any results, and it’s very likely that science would be too limited to grasp his suffering.
What also spoke to me was the film’s style; it’s hyperfocused as if under a microscope, and minimalistic like everything on the earth’s surface was erased and then refurbished with only the essentials—it feels so stripped down and yet so full, aided by an equally economic score. It sounds like a horror film even though technically it isn’t, reminding you that maybe there isn’t anything more scary than simply being alive in today’s world, and nothing more threatening than going about your everyday life. You might be hit by a truth—your own or someone else’s, and the world as you know it might collapse with the blink of an eye. The atmosphere is almost apocalyptic.
It’s a film about people closing their eyes, and those who are beginning to see—and how painful awareness can be. It’s about the difficulty of being a spiritual being in a disconnected world. And it’s also about that one thing, or that one person, that can prevent your world from drowning completely. In the film’s only love scene, Ethan Hawke's and Amanda Seyfried's kiss looks more like a feeding, and you can almost see a healing take place. There are several moments that are surprisingly powerful in their simplicity.
It’s the film Kenneth Lonergan would make if he wasn’t so paralyzingly humble, the film Terrence Malick would make if he didn’t have such delusions of grandeur. Questioning life and the point of it all, this easily could have been a very pretentious film. Pretentiousness is avoided when you really mean what you say. And Paul Schrader means it.
There’s something different about First Reformed, something we haven’t seen before. If I dissect it into little pieces, I find the same old ingredients as in many other films—yet there’s something innovative about it that I can’t pinpoint nor explain. Modern is a word I often use as an insult, but here I mean it as a compliment. It feels like a film of and for the new century. A film that is needed, maybe.