First Reformed: When Silence Speaks
Precise, rigorous, intense. First Reformed is a bare film. No music, no special effects, just a clerical man and his crisis of faith. Like us, he wavers between hope and despair, between the immense beauty of a world and its ugly destruction. The character takes the viewer into this no man's land where reason can no longer help him. The character only has his faith left, this voluntary choice of hope, this cry that slices through the cold, death-like silence.
The masterful conflict that the character experiences is prominent from the first image to the last. There is no action, not even a great scene of Homeric dialogue. Instead we get emotionally deadly face-to-face encounters, conflicts as intense as they are simple and strong. It is emotionally so powerful that the director chose slowness to allow the audience to digest certain scenes.
Structurally, except for a few slow moments, it is implacable. The film builds in a way that leads to disaster, towards the destruction of the character. The parallel between the character who is self-destructively dying and our planet is strong, very visual and speaks for itself.
Shrader even succeeds in giving a touch of surrealism to an otherwise totally clear, cold, ultra-realistic film. The scene where Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried start to fly above gorgeous landscapes is classic filmmaking. Everything in his film is impeccable. All the actors, from the supporting to the leads, are completely on point. It is the mark of a great: not a single character is simply utilitarian; all are essential to the story.
Even some rare narrative weaknesses have little impact because the film is so intense. It is perhaps a shame that the priest makes a presumably too quick turnaround towards eco-terrorism, few superfluous narration passages and an antagonist who is too easy to hate. Most likely, Paul Shrader did not want to develop or complicate his villain to keep the focus on his main character. It is true that the very remarkable Ethan Hawke is so intense that it makes everything else go through. Still, it's a bit of a pity, as we were just a hairbreadth from a masterpiece.
Of course, we cannot ignore the very last scene when the love, the pure, unconditional love comes to save the character at the last minute when he is at his breaking point. It is brutal and the ending sequence was possibly too abrupt; the director launches his last scene like we do all-in at a poker game. The scene is beautiful, very graphic but... It's just too short and its beauty can't save everything. That's my only real regret. Yet... even with this regret, the end, through its audacity, sends us a message: who can predict the future? Who can predict the end? Nothing at all. This is indeed a reason to not allow despair to overcome you. The writer seems to be telling us to not give up just before a miracle can happen. And the last scene is indeed... a miracle. So the end is admittedly abrupt, totally unexpected, but hence also consistent with the message.
To conclude, let’s say that this film is the proof, the embodiment of the narrative power of this conflict, such major and essential tool of dramaturgy. This bare film only just relies on this methodology. First Reformed is an exemplary demonstration thereof.
A film to watch for the power of its silence!