Mass pollution, the rise in sea levels, deforestation, mass shootings, suicide bombings; the destruction of the natural world. The particulars of the world of 2018 are not the same as they were in 1976, the one that gave birth to Travis Bickle, the eponymous loner of the Paul Schrader penned Taxi Driver. There was no internet for Bickle to access the exact measures in which we are poisoning the planet or share videos of suicide bombers on social media. The void that consumed Bickle murmured of filth and degeneracy. The void that preaches to Schrader’s Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, in a career-best performance) does so of mankind’s desecration of nature, and the apathy in which we do so. The void may say different things to each man, praying on their particular prisons of isolation ––Bickle in the nocturnal streets of New York City and his sexual frustration, Toller in his sparsely attended tourist stop of a church and his grief over the loss of his child––but it’s the same void. Schrader invokes the specter of Taxi Driver (even down to using specific visual homages) not to recapitulate the glories of his earlier career, but to remind us that as bad as the world may seem right now, as changed as it is, our deepest fears–the ones that truly keep us awake at night and steal hope from us–may be more pervasive, but they are the same as they’ve always been.
Toller’s faith is on shaky ground from the get-go in the film, battling illness, alcoholism, and a destroyed family. His doubts are eating away at him from the inside, and he no longer even has the ability to pray (in fact, the only time we see him kneeling is when he’s throwing up in the toilet). But Toller still has hope for humanity… and himself. The catalyst that begins to truly degrade his spirit is in his counsel to Michael, a troubled young man on the cusp of extremism, driven to the brink over the prospect of bringing a child into a world that may ignite in flame in its lifetime. His room is adorned with statistics reflecting the myriad metrics of doom. Even a decade ago his character might seem outlandish, a reflection of real angst perhaps but a caricature, a street corner doomsayer shouting at passers-by. Today though? Michael exists in real life. I was instantly reminded of Brian Reed’s exceptional podcast S-Town, which investigated a fascinating true-life character who was driven by the exact same existential despair felt by Michael, right down to the encyclopedic rantings on climate statistics. You only need to turn on the news to see the latest example of loneliness and despair driving acts of violence, to themselves or others. You probably know people who have questioned the morality of having kids in such a world.
There’s another thread that connects Toller to Michael beside their shared fixation. Mary–Michael’s pregnant wife (the symbolism is rife here) and a confidant of Toller, played by Amanda Seyfried–represents the stakes Toller is playing for: the future of humanity itself; if not in the flesh then perhaps in spirit. It’s easy to see why Toller is so drawn to Mary, as Seyfried’s large eyes shine with a reflective innocence that stand in sharp relief from Toller’s own hooded stare, and the cold world they look out upon.
Schrader brings this infectious existential crisis to vivid life with the film’s sparse mise-en-scene, and cramped 4:3 framing. There’s hardly any color in the film, and there’s almost no non-diegetic music employed until over an hour into the film (and when it is introduced, it’s not melodic, but the droning noise of the abyss and what may or may not lurk within). Almost everything in the film is reserved. It’s not a film that goes to you but asks you to come to it. It’s quiet so you have to listen harder, and it lingers so you’re forced to look longer. Even Hawke plays his part very small, never giving away too much. I never got the sense that these techniques were employed to deliberately frustrate the viewer’s engagement of the story, only to ask them to meet what is likely to prove a divisive and challenging film half way.
However, in two deliberately jarring instances, First Reformed breaks from its restraint and repression, delivering full-bodied metaphysical spirituality (one of them that recalls the works of acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky) that shatters the rigid constraints Schrader has himself laid out. You will recognize them when you see them, and it’s in these brief sequences that contain perhaps the key to the film’s message of duality, of hope within the hopelessness. It’s not easy, they seem to suggest, and it’s impossible to do it alone, but there is a way out.