Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and the author of the book Transcendental Style in Film has struck a collaboration with Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller to make one of the most pertinent films of the year. From the opening moments of this film, First Reformed demonstrates and establishes its quiet, slow, and deliberate tone that will carry the viewer through the next 90 minutes of restrained exploration into the intersection of religion, political extremism, and contemporary life.
The opening shot of this film is a rare one - a dolly. Nothing insane, nothing revolutionary, and nothing as visually standoffish as the aspect ratio. This simple camera movement isn’t rare because of its simplicity - it’s rare because of its motion. See, the vast majority of this film is locked down to a tripod, and even then, there’s not a whole lot of panning or tilting - a major departure from just about anything you’ll see in the multiplex right now. Even something that’s supposedly “borderline indie” like Widows is almost obsessed with near constant camera movement! This brings up an interesting conversation regarding the motivation of camera movement. I’m currently enrolled in a steadicam certification workshop through Emerson College, and on the first day, the instructor (a professional cinematographer working in Boston and New York) emphasized the reasoning behind using the steadicam in the first place. We talked about all the different kinds of camera movement, from the tripod, to the dolly, trucking with literal tracks, the crane, jib, a shoulder rig, a brushless gimbal like a MOVI, and the steadicam itself. We spent a lot of time going over the specific advantages and disadvantages of each, and the rationale behind using one over the other. One thing the instructor emphasized was specifying where that motivation starts. The instructor said that, personally, he always starts from the tripod no matter what. Then, if that shot, if that scene, if that project needs movement, then he motivates away from there and decides what movement is necessary. It was a really informative and revealing thing to hear - just to know the specifics behind why you would use movement. First Reformed certainly functions similarly - starting from the tripod and motivating away from that. For me, this decision made me focus much more on performance and editing, and informs the restraint and control Hawke’s character is experiencing.
Ultimately, this lack of camera movement throughout the film culminates in two shots. The first is when Hawke and Seyfried share an intimate and transformative moment of contact. The second is the final shot in the film, where, once again, Hawke and Seyfried share an intimate and transformative moment of contact. Both are this commanding moment of emotional reckoning, communicating everything the characters are feeling and thinking and wanting through camera movement.
What may be the most immediately striking feature of this film is its aspect ratio. First Reformed was framed for a 1.375:1 aspect ratio, which (surprisingly enough) is not 4:3, and 4:3 is not the academy ratio! Maybe I’ve just been in the dark, but I did not know that 1.33:1 (4:3) was not the academy ratio! According to Scientific American, 1.33 was originally developed for silent film, but when an optical soundtrack was added onto the film stock after the 20s, real estate had to be sacrificed - and the academy quickly settled on 1.375:1 to make room. It’s a subtle difference, and I doubt I would be able to tell 1.33 apart from 1.375, but being well researched about seemingly minor facts like these is essential.
There has been a seeming resurgence in the use of the academy ratio in recent years - from Fish Tank to Ida, Laurence Anyways to Son of Saul, A Ghost Story to The Artist, and even the majority of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Filmmakers are waking up to the idea that aspect ratio plays a vital role in the experience of viewing a film. In First Reformed, Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s choice to film in 1.375 results in a formal physical and emotional confinement. David Lowery, writer and director of A Ghost Story, described the aspect ratio of his film as “trapping this character in a box,” which is an apt description of First Reformed as well. Narratively, Schrader has restricted Hawke in terms of his role in society, in terms of his intrapersonal emotions, and in terms of his physical being in the world as well as in the frame, and from the audience’s perspective, the aspect ratio helps communicate the film’s scope - as NitrateFilmFires on reddit states, the audience “stayed in tune with Reverend Toller and his concerns. Literally, the scope of the film did not go beyond him.” But there are substantial challenges when working within such an aspect ratio - namely, screen real estate: there’s less room to play with negative space and the extremes of the frame. Luckily, Dynan finds a way to mitigate these downfalls: namely, wide lenses.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any information about exactly which lenses were used on this shoot, but it’s easy to tell that they were pretty wide - definitely wider than the standard 50mm (especially in establishing shots such as the one where Hawke’s Reverend Toller sits down with a depressed man, or when Toller and Amanda Seyfried's character reconcile the depressed man’s suicide). Coupled with Dynan’s centered framing, it allows the characters to be physically smaller in the frame itself - emphasizing their relative helplessness and destitute in the face of far-reaching societal issues the film discusses. Besides the benefit of easier framing of faces with the academy ratio - which is almost cliche to say at this point -, 1.375 coupled with the wide lenses also offers a lesser-known stylistic tool: emphasizing verticality. In many scenes, this verticality manifests itself as framing the actors’ entire bodies in the same shot, leading to a sort of visual isolation and independence. The final benefit of these wider lenses is a unique sort of intimacy with the actors - the camera is physically so much closer than it normally is in close-ups. The actual placement of the camera is in between the two actors instead of being on the outskirts, showcasing the subtleties in performance that may be lost if the camera was further away, while still retaining the rapport you get with shooting between the actors.
Ultimately, the use of wide lenses gives Dynan the best of both worlds - the confinement and restraint of the academy aspect ratio while still being able to experiment with less than conventional framing techniques. It’s refreshing and more than anything exciting and energizing to see filmmakers buck the defaulted trend of shooting everything in either 1.77 or 2.39:1, because ultimately these decisions compound on each other - the defaulting of aspect ratio, color vs black and white, story structure, and so on lead to less diverse, less creative, less personal, and less affecting art.
Can we talk about what an awesome opportunity this role is for Hawke? I don’t mean in the career trajectory sense, or even in the Oscar bait sense - I mean in the meatiness sense. Thematically, you’ve got masculinity, religion, control, guilt, restraint, and so much more! You’ve got darkly delicious narration via a journal, and you’ve got almost constant confrontation and conflict with nearly every character in the film. It’s a perfect springboard to launch a whopper of a performance.
This whopper comes in the form of a quietly contemplative Ethan Hawke whose quiet demeanor entrances the viewer and asks them to lean forward and pay attention. This is a uniquely cinematic performance; by cinematic I don’t mean epic or operatic, rather cinematic in this sense means that this performance could only live on the silver screen. It truly highlights the dichotomy between performances in the theatre and those on film. In my experiences in the theatre, most if not all of the directors I’ve worked with have compelled everyone to eliminate all pauses and beats that were not specifically added by the director. The space in between lines of dialogue and even within monologues needs to be as tight as humanly possible. I remember specifically in a production of 12 Angry Men, the director compelled us to jump on each other's lines, to pounce on the opportunity to interject. And in the play Appropriate, we did an exercise called “the Meisner Technique,” where we would rephrase the last part of the other actor's line as a question before you said your own. A simple example from that play would be this exchange in Act One:
“What are you doing here?”
“[What am I doing here?] I’m here with mom.”
“[You’re here with your mom?] I thought you guys weren’t coming until tomorrow?”
“[You thought we weren’t coming until tomorrow?]...”
Then the director told us that’s what should be happening while the other person is still saying their line. As the other actor is speaking, you need to be consciously ingesting and interpreting what they’re saying - and most importantly, reacting to it. All of this needs to be going on in real time while the lines are being read so that you can immediately reply with your line. This is because in the theatre, there’s so much emphasis on delivery and blocking rather than subtle facial expressions due to the literal distance the audience is from the stage. This inability to see an actor pause and think for a moment necessitates near constant action.
While in film, actors can swim in the moments between lines, they can think when they don’t speak, and they can react. I mean, for christ sake there’s an entire term (reverse shot) dedicated to a shot where an actor is just reacting! But just because you have the ability to pause doesn’t mean you need to: there’s a difference between a taking an emotional beat where the actor is thinking and feeling and an actor pausing just because it feels right. It’s a subtle difference, but there needs to be something there, a thinking processes behind the pause. Just like with camera movement, there needs to be motivation.
First Reformed bubbles with extremism. Over the course of the film, Reverend Toller is lead down a path of radicalization due to the suicide of the depressed environmentalist named Michael. So, much like the film, let’s use this opportunity to comment and explore the effectiveness of extremism as it relates to an extremist protest happening as I’m writing this: the Parisian Yellow Jackets.
Starting on November 17th, people in Paris from the left and the right took to the streets to protest French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposed gas tax hikes that would result in an additional cost of 25 cents per gallon (as stated by the New York Times). According to the International Gas Agency, before the new tax, gas in France costs an estimated $5.89 USD per gallon. The same New York Times article reported on the 4th of December that Macron has since suspended the proposed tax increase. Still, that has not stopped an estimated 300,000 protesters from taking to the streets. Unlike nearly any protest in America, the Yellow Jacket protests have an 80 percent approval rating among the general public (according to a poll published by the Figaro newspaper). Macron says that the taxes are an effort to curb climate change and persuade people to switch to more fuel-efficient cars, but this ignores the fact that, according to The Carbon Majors Report, 71% of global emissions are caused by corporations. Macron (and many others’) framing of the issue of climate change as a moral one placed upon the individual is nothing short of purposeful bourgeoisie deception. And on a practical level, it’s just not feasible for working class people to “just drive less” in a country with underdeveloped public transit outside of major metro areas - forcing working people to drive further and further distances as they are displaced from the city centers due to the rising cost of rent. These new gas taxes won’t stop people from driving, and will only cost working class people more money. As stated before, these protesters come from the left and the right - this is not a partisan issue.
Contrary to what libertarians would like to believe, the protests are not strictly about the tax increase - it’s much more complicated than that. It’s about the working class being ignored, marginalized, and exploited. People are fed up with their conditions. The New York Times quoted a woman who works in a factory in the Alps as saying, in reference to the motivation behind the protest, “We’re just hungry, that’s all.” While the taxes are certainly a catalyst for outrage, tension between Macron and the French people has been growing for some time now due to his centrist/neoliberal policies as well as affiliation with corporations and big business. In a Tweet sent out on November 24th, Macron ignored the plight of the working people, and instead thanked the police force for their “courage and professionalism.” Additionally, Macron called for “shame” on the protestors, ending the Tweet with a morbidly dystopian statement, writing that there is “no room for this violence in the Republic.” It’s important to reiterate that these protests are not about taxes. It’s about Macron’s centrist administration - as well as the rich elite and corporations that he represents - ignoring the working class.
Is there room for violence? Is violent protest an effective means of political change? This question is central to First Reformed as well as the Yellow Jacket protests - the former poses the question with curious trepidation while the latter is answered with furious cries from the working class. The US government would lead you to believe that the only way to effectively protest is through nonviolence. Except if the violence is toward people of color. Or countries that aren’t capitalist. Or if those countries have some delicious oil - then, according to the US, violently invading their country to slaughter innocent people, effectively starting a war, and stealing all of their natural resources is perfectly acceptable! The US would like you to believe that the only way to effectively protest is through state-sanctioned protest. What else would you do? Protest illegally? How dare you! Why can’t you just protest the way the system you’re protesting wants you to protest? If violence isn’t an effective way to enact change, if violence is an immoral way to effect change, then can someone please explain to me what the American revolution was all about? Why couldn’t these “thugs” and “hardcore troublemakers” just write a strongly worded letter to their oppressors? Why couldn’t they work with the redcoats to achieve their goals?
When discussing political violence, it’s almost inevitable for someone to bring up the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. People who have unequivocally enacted massive social and political change, but what they fail to understand is that how the US media and education system whitewash revolutionary figureheads. Mandala co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress known as the “Spear of the Nation.” And according to the LA Times, he was convicted and jailed for life in 1964, and he was later offered freedom under the condition that he would renounce violence - he refused. I mean, for christ sake, he remained on the US terrorist watch list until 2008! And King was widely considered an extremist in his time. According to USA Today and a 1968 Harris poll, he died with a public disapproval rating of 75%. Reagan administration officials routinely referred to King as “Martin Lucifer Coon.” King himself was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war, going so far as to call the US “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” King was a socialist (for crying out loud!) - he did not relegate his attacks to race or even US foreign policy, bluntly stating that “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources,” and that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” Even though he practiced sit-ins and boycotts, he was outspoken about more violent means of protests as well, saying that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” People such as Mandela and King need to be recognized for their willingness to use and willingness to acknowledge the power of violence as a means for political change.
As much as First Reformed is steeped in extremism, it is by no means a call to action. It certainly features extremism and political action, but the film is not about these things - it’s about a man grappling with his place in society, reconciling what he’s been told about how the world functions, and coming to terms with the insufficiency of the so-called answers he’s been given. It by no means answers the multitude of questions that an audience may have after watching this film, but First Reformed is brave enough to raise them.
Ultimately, two questions make themselves evident: is self-defense ethical, and at what point does it become okay to fight back? I don’t know the answers to these questions and I don’t even know if they have identifiable and empirical answers, but one thing is for certain - when an oppressor is willing to use violence to keep you in line, but you aren’t willing to use violence against them, you are going to lose.