By Kieran Begu
“The world is hell and humanity is doomed” is a theme that has been reiterated all across cinema.
Just last year, Joker painted a portrait of the effects of society and Beanpole depicted humanity at its worse with war. This year, there was The Devil All The Time.
And in 1976, there was Taxi Driver, the mother of all this offspring, and the reigning champion of this sub-genre.
But Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver had tried his hand once again almost five decades later in the largely overlooked First Reformed.
And it is one of the most harrowing cinematic experiences of the past decade.
All nihilistic character studies are battles. It is the protagonist verse the world.
But the villain in First Reformed isn’t something as simple as ‘society’. It’s a meditative study on religion, and where it stands in this changing world.
Pastor Tellor (Ethan Hawke) battles his religion. He begins to lose faith and spiral out of control after discovering the impending doom of climate change, and the resounding ignorance from the church.
There’s no doubt about it, this is an extremely bleak film. It covers sensitive issues from extremism to Christianity with an expertise that only a gifted screenwriter and lead actor could pull off.
But the film’s disturbance didn’t entirely stem from the subject matter — it was the product of some ingenious filmmaking.
Most noticeably, the decision to use 1.37:1 aspect ratio ; more commonly known as ‘the box ratio’ (or ‘Academy Ratio’)
The ‘box ratio’ does what it seeks out to do. It confines the screen to a small, almost suffocating space.
If Tellor can’t escape the world closing in on him, neither can the audience — this was the mindset Schrader had when choosing the ratio.
As an audience, we are forced into an illustration of Tellor’s headspace, and feel the claustrophobic black bars on each side of the screen.
To emphasise the confining nature, the camera always remains static, focused on Tellor. And we are forced to walk along with him down his increasingly dark road.
The level of disturbance rests heavily on Hawke, and he carries the burden.
Ramping up his horrific fair from Sinister, Hawke is able to capture his character’s scary internal conflict with a heaping bout of nuance.
Tellor doesn’t exhibit his pain. He goes about the day as per usual; doing his job, writing in his journal, reading the bible — but as the film crawls along, we can feel an internal rot growing inside him.
Hawke does all the telling with his face. You can see the pain behind his eyes. He suffers silently, and it’s terrifying.
The score follows suit with his deterioration. The second half of the film is permeated by a whine of noises, representing the external dread the pastor feels. And it whines and whines until we feel that same dread.
All hope is gone. Humanity is truly done for.
Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to his world? Those are the leaving questions First Reformed leaves you with.
It’s a rhetoric that lingers in your head long after the film has finished. And it’s not one to leave anytime soon.