First Reformed (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Ethan Hawke. First Reformed may become forgotten come Oscar season, but he deserves to be in the Best Actor conversation for this performance.
This is disturbing, complex, and engaging cinema, and will leave you talking long after the film comes to an end.
Evokes memories of Schrader’s screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, while creating a probing conversation about how we treat the world and each other, and the role religious virtue plays in all of those interactions.
That last 10-15 minutes is a doozy and can either make the film reach a new level of awesome or make you angry for everything you just sat through.
Thought not a gory film per se, there are scenes and images absolutely not for sensitive audiences.
Some have expressed frustration that the film feels almost misogynistic and relies on old tropes of women’s subservience and male ego and hubris.
The myriad of films made by writer/director Paul Schrader is something of a schizophrenic journey into bold, brave storytelling and movies that seem to showcase a filmmaker lost in the words of the story he is trying to tell.
When Schrader’s new film First Reformed premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in August 2017, critics were stunned that this was the same filmmaker who previously shot two straight-to-VOD Nicolas Cage films, the doomed Exorcist prequel, Dominion, and the infamous 2013 film The Canyons, which cast Lindsey Lohan opposite porn star James Deen in a laughable erotic thriller.
This all feels different though. Schrader is reaching deep down into his soul with First Reformed, a cathartic and mesmerizing journey, which stars Ethan Hawke as Rev. Ernst Toller. Hawke commands the screen, and has perhaps never been better, as a former military chaplain, managing a storied, if not scarcely attended, church in upstate New York.
Toller, as we learn from the opening scenes, has decided to spend one calendar year writing down his thoughts and observations in a journal each day. When the year is up, he will destroy the journal, concluding an act of focus and discipline he feels compelled to put in place for himself.
First Reformed Church is in the initial stages of preparing for its 250th anniversary celebration when we first meet Rev. Toller, and he is soon approached by parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried), She quietly but firmly expresses concerns over her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) and his increasingly erratic behavior.
While we hear Toller in voiceover, narrating his journal entries, we also are privy to scenes where we see an increased presence in Mary and Michael’s life. In one captivating scene, Michael debates with Toller over climate change and environmental impacts escalating out of control. We learn that Mary is pregnant, and Michael has asked her to consider an abortion, as he feels “this is no world to raise a child in.”
As the movie goes about its measured pace, we start to see cracks forming in Toller’s armor. When a tragedy shakes him to his core, Toller begins to question his calling to the ministry and begins rethinking elements from his past, he thought were previously dealt with.
As that 250th anniversary drawing closer, his meetings with Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), the leader of a prosperity gospel organization, Abundant Life, of which Toller’s church is affiliated, become increasingly intense. Toller voices strong resistance to the financier of the anniversary ceremony, local CEO, and climate change denier, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston).
Health concerns, a persistent former girlfriend, and the desperation to journal each day, coupled with a desire to become more and more reclusive, starts to overwhelm Toller until he nears the breaking point.
Schrader is exorcising lots of demons here, or appears to be trying to. In many ways, this might be the most profound work of his career, at least as a director. This is a conflicted and challenging piece, analyzing faith and devout belief in a world where our actions seem to be increasingly in conflict with the word of God.
With Hawke’s performance, he transforms himself into a character and persona we don’t quite recognize. The connections between actor and character here seem rooted in DNA, and Hawke’s escalation from quiet, affable community pastor, to a person who begins to feel marginalized and cornered, is breathtaking to witness.
There are moments that are stunning and unshakable. Schrader lines his film with nods to themes and emotional exploration common in several of his previous screenplays like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
However, not everything comes together as cohesively as Schrader is aiming for. While he is fearless in taking First Reformed to some dark and chilling places, not all the symbolism, introspection, and striking imagery makes much sense.
Among those in my audience, there were audible gasps, and people were wondering aloud just what the film was reaching for following an off-the-rails, final 10-15 minutes that asks a whole lot more questions than provide any answers.
For some, there will be plenty to chew on, ponder, and consider. For others, First Reformed will feel like something of a bait-and-switch, presenting as one kind of movie and becoming something altogether different. In the weeks since I have watched it, I have thought about it often, deeply conflicted within myself as to whether this is a great movie or not.
Ultimately, another viewing or two will put those thoughts into focus, however with Hawke a potential contender for a Best Actor nomination, and thinking about the suffocating atmosphere Schrader creates, First Reformed is a movie that cannot be forgotten, even if its increasingly dark tone pushes you to the outside, while drawing others deep inside its unsettling world.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger, Bill Hoag, Kristin Villaneuva.
Director: Paul Schrader
Written by: Paul Schrader
Release Date: May 25, 2018