Paul Schrader possesses one of the most solid bodies of work in the film industry. As a screenwriter, he has cooperated with directors such as Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. With the latter, he would create Taxi Driver, his most acclaimed script based on Schrader’s personal experiences living in New York and works from Sartre and Dostoievski.
More than four decades after Travis Bickle, Schrader has introduced us to a new character as dynamic and complex as the one who Robert DeNiro would give one of the best performances of his career.
Reverend Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, is a frustrated man carrying the heavy burden of sorrow and regret on his shoulders while trying to keep the First Reformed Church duties and affairs. As his church, Toller is alone, forgotten, in need of attention. But no one seems to notice it. He starts to counsel a troublesome couple of environmentalists that has just moved into town. The wife is desperate, and like Toller, facing an existential crisis. The husband is convinced that there’s no way back to avoid the unpleasant destiny that awaits our planet, which is doomed by men’s fault. He wants to know from Reverend Toller if God can forgive us. For what we have done to our planet.
That question and the conviction in which the husband talks about the imminent destruction stays with Toller and it is the spark that the character needed to start his quest and transformation. We can see the parallel of Toller with Travis Bickle in a particular scene where Schrader recreates the famous cut from Taxi Driver when Scorsese’s camera zooms into a glass of water with an effervescent tablet to Travis pensive look, to almost the same effect on Toller.
In a world where bigger problems than crime and drugs, such as climate change, mass migration and data leaking have emerged in our lives, First Reformed feels like an updated version of Taxi Driver. Another production from the independent company A24, First Reformed is a contemplative watch of a film, especially for the days we are living in.