Following a disillusioned pastor as he grows increasingly detached, Paul Schrader's First Reformed examines weighty concepts tied to faith and despair. Through a potently minimalist aesthetic, the movie creates a palpable air of isolation and cinematic ambiguity, resulting in an affecting and quietly profound experience. A modest yet respectful technical presentation and a pair of informative supplements all round out the Blu-ray package. Recommended.
Director Paul Schrader is no stranger to movies about isolation and disillusionment. Throughout his storied career, the filmmaker has weaved several narratives about troubled loaners locked away in solitary rooms -- most notably as the writer behind Martin Scorsese's 1976 masterpiece, Taxi Driver. And in First Reformed, Schrader once again probes the damaged psyche of a spiritually lost and tragically secluded protagonist, stepping behind the camera to examine another one of God's lonely men.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) lives a quiet and emotionally detached life as the pastor of an old, sparsely attended church in upstate New York. When one of his few parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to him for help with her distraught husband, Toller agrees to speak with the man. But after their meeting leads to unexpectedly tragic consequences, the minister begins to question his faith. As Toller suffers increasingly dire spiritual and physical distress, he struggles to reconcile his beliefs with the harsh realities of the world.
Drawing strong parallels to Taxi Driver, Toller is clearly cut from the same cinematic cloth as De Niro's Travis Bickle, but while that character's more overtly psychotic and unsavory views kept him at a distance, Hawke and Schrader present a much more sympathetic protagonist here. Voice over narration tied to the man's journal clue us into some of his struggles, though the full extent of his torment and the machinations behind his increasingly troubling choices remain appropriately ambiguous.
To that extent, themes and plot points related to faith, hope, despair, forgiveness, and martyrdom are woven throughout the mood and dialogue driven affair, mixing philosophical musings about religion and environmentalism with a strikingly sparse and powerfully minimalist style. A somber stillness pervades Schrader's visual aesthetic, creating a carefully measured pace marked by lingering static shots. Key instances of motion, like a subtle push-in, simple pan, and a particularly notable camera movement during the climax, are all given more power and weight thanks to the comparative stagnation that surrounds them.
A detour into the surreal also adds another level of dreamlike power to the film's delicately arresting rhythm, directly evoking a similar sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. In fact, Schrader's overall approach heavily references past works and storytelling flourishes of Tarkovsky and other filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. But despite these clear influences, Schrader ultimately develops something all his own, using a refreshingly stripped-down approach to create a cinematically potent and quietly profound experience.
As a hidden darkness slowly bubbles to the surface, First Reformed asks viewers to gently lean into its characters, performances, and style, letting its deliberately measured mood evolve into something potently tense and affecting. Muted but ultimately arresting, the movie probes into unsettling yet thought-provoking territory -- adding another troubled loaner to Schrader's collection of memorable cinematic characters.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Lionsgate presents First Reformed on a BD-25 Blu-ray disc housed in a keepcase with a cardboard slipscover. Instructions for a Digital Copy via Movieredeem.com are included as well. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
The film is presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Appropriately bleak, the restrained image here might not offer the most traditionally impressive picture but the style bolsters the movie's isolated tone well.
The source is mostly clean save for a very light layer of grain-like noise, adding a bit of added texture to the proceedings. Detail is good throughout with strong visible textures, particularly during close-ups of Hawke's world-weary and frequently distressed expressions. Numerous static, wide shots also carry nice depth and clarity, emphasizing Schrader's use of space with good dimensionality. The palette is mostly muted with a cooler cast marked by greys, blues, and whites -- which all perfectly suit the secluded mood. Contrast is nicely balanced and black levels are deep while retaining good detail. With that said, I did detect a hint of false contouring/banding in the background walls of some darker sequences.
First Reformed features an intentionally dreary image, but the style and technical presentation are both strong and free from any major issues.
The movie is provided with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track along with English SHD and Spanish subtitles. Like the video, the mix is quite modest yet still potent in key bursts.
Speech is clean and well prioritized, giving the voice over and various philosophical musings ample presence. The soundstage itself is a bit restrained and front-loaded, but left/right directionality is solid, and appropriate ambiance (birds, wind) does help to enhance the story's quietly somber and unsettling mood. Likewise, the film's atmospheric score comes through very well, adding an eerie tone to the proceedings along with a few powerful bass cues here and there.
The sound design is deliberately scaled back, but the track manages to create an effectively isolating environment.
Paul Schrader's First Reformed is a quietly unsettling and potently ambiguous examination of faith and disillusionment. The film's minimalist style helps to engender an affecting atmosphere of isolation, and Hawke's layered performance is captivating. Though modest, the video and audio presentations are both solid, preserving the intended mood well. An informative commentary and behind-the-scenes featurette round out the package, offering plenty of insights into the director's process and intentions. The film's more esoteric flourishes won't appeal to all audiences, but its intellectual, spiritual, and cinematic musings carry a weighty impact. Recommended.