First Reformed ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Another Paul Schrader chronicle of a man's deterioration, but this one is stronger in its sense of doom and claustrophobia, more inspired and elegant in its choice of premise, and finally more personally affecting than something like Affliction, Hardcore or even Taxi Driver. Part of its success hinges on the extent to which it’s able to force identification, through the good work of both Schrader and an unexpectedly masterful Ethan Hawke, with the pastor of a tourist-trap Dutch Reformed church in New England. We have no choice but to hang on as he copes with his anxieties, which already seem insurmountable enough before the building blocks of his worldview and the stories he tells himself to keep going begin to tumble. It's hard to imagine anything improving on the whole of the narrative, including its initially off-putting finale, as a metaphor for life in these times of duress and how to process same; the escalation ties you up in knots because it's so easy to imagine falling down in the same ways as Hawke's Rev. Toller. It's inevitable that this all calls to mind Diary of a Country Priest -- Toller is journaling and has stomach problems, even -- but it eventually serves as an antidote to that film's philosophy which I find so personally alienating. Conversely it doesn't land far from the conclusion of Bresson's Pickpocket, yet it feels livelier and more urgent thanks to its alignment with our own unprecedented moment; Schrader doesn't quite have the emotional energy to really effectively push the Ordet-like ending as well as it deserves (fantasy or not, it's an expression of grace and redemption that says vastly more, at least to me, than a cross) nor does he seem to hold the technical chops for the entirely unexpected Tarkovsky moment 2/3 in; but it's still exhilarating to watch someone go out on a limb like this, so fearlessly, and the earthlier portions of the narrative, right up to the harrowing tension of the sestercentennial ceremony, are as fine-tuned and icily maintained in their haunting minimalism as if it were all some lost grim fantasy of Clouzot's.

All hail the Academy Ratio comeback. Also: recommended double feature with Miguel Arteta's Beatriz at Dinner.