2018, R, 108 mins.
Ethan Hawke as Toller / Amanda Seyfried as Mary / Cedric The Entertainer as Pastor Jeffers / Michael Gaston as Edward Balq / Victoria Hill as Esther / Philip Ettinger as Michael
Written and directed by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED is a faith-in-crisis drama about a man of the cloth that's being thrust down a dark chasm of complete emotional and spiritual breakdown. Calling this a religious movie almost doesn't do it any justice, seeing as Schrader has decidedly more up his sleeve than exploring his character's belief in the almighty.
REFORMED is more of a compelling and sometimes shocking meditation on how
some people deal with inner turmoil and how that, in turn, often
materializes into taking actions that unavoidably go down all the wrong
paths. The fact that the film
is ostensibly about a priest is almost beside the point, seeing as most
viewers will be able to relate to the protagonist's existentialist
dilemmas about how hope seems lost in a hopeless world.
And it all builds to one of the most unnerving and unforgettable
climaxes that I've ever seen.
Maybe that's the
best accolade I could bestow upon FIRST REFORMED: It takes a compassionate
look at some very heavy spiritual themes, but it never, ever takes
the road most traveled approach in examining them.
Most people have their own preconceived assumptions about what a
faith based film is, especially as far as mainstream films are concerned.
But so very few religious films have the courageous ambition to
make viewers squirm with slow burning unease as much as FIRST REFORMED,
and Schrader seems to be reveling here in taking audiences completely
outside of the respective comfort zones.
The writer/director has never shied away, though, from making
uncomfortable films, seeing as he penned some of the greatest films of
Martin Scorsese's career in TAXI DRIVER,
RAGING BULL, and THE LAST TEMPTATION
OF CHRIST. The manner with
which FIRST REFORMED takes some macabre twists and turns - especially
during its final moments - will probably shock, anger, and disturb
viewers...in equal measure. But
you have to just admire Schrader's willingness to audaciously go there,
which makes his film all the more incendiary and hypnotic.
The overall plot
is deceptively simple in its execution, but nevertheless strays away for
being prosaic in execution. A
never been better Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a Protestant
minister of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, a holy
place of great historical significance, but one that has a difficult time
maintaining regular attendees. Toller
has a deeply unsettling past: he's a former military chaplain struggling
with the death of his son, whom he convinced to enlist.
Tormented by his passing, Toller's marriage ended as a result,
leaving him a broken man that's pathetically given the assignment at the
First Reformed Church, which is now more of a business-like tourist
attraction selling cheap gifts than a place of worship.
Overseeing this place's day-to-day operations is like living a
purgatory-like existence for Toller.
Worse yet, he seems to be getting sicker by the day with an
unspecified illness that he refuses to treat and has become a hopeless
alcoholic behind closed doors.
As a form of
mental and spiritual cleansing, Toller decides to write down his daily
thoughts in a journal (which makes up the film's voiceover narration), for
an entire year, after which time he will burn it.
His lonely existence is changed with the appearance of Mary (Amanda
Seyfried), whom one day politely asks Toller to come over and counsel her
radical environmentalist husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), whose
zealot-like passion to save the world from climate change and man-made
decay fuels his depression and is slowly eroding his marriage.
Even though Toller soft spokenly tries to reassure the troubled man
that there's always room for hope in the world, Michael seems doggedly
unconvinced, and he does provide thoughtful and logical reasons for his
dread that, deep down, Toller understands...and maybe even believes in
himself. One of the singular
pleasures of FIRST REFORMED is to witness Schrader put the utmost faith is
his writing and the individual performances to carry long dialogue driven
begins to realize that Michael is perhaps beyond healing, and things go
south really fast when Mary relays to him that Michael wants her to abort
their unborn child (he doesn't see a future of raising one in an
environmentally ravaged world) and that she's discovered what appears to
be a suicide vest in the garage. Toller's
life starts to become even more unraveled when his mysterious illness
starts to get the better of him, not to mention that he's facing difficult
occupational hardships and stresses in planning and implementing his
church's 250th anniversary, which will be attended by the mayor, governor,
and his superior (Cedric the Entertainer), who oversees a local church
that appears to have all of the financial backing in the world. When an unspeakable tragedy befalls Mary and Michael, Toller
is forced to question his place in the church, his role as a minister, and
his own closeted environmental activism.
Right from its
methodical and leisurely, but unmistakably enthralling opening shot - as
we track slowly and ominously towards the facade of the 18th century
church - you're made immediately aware that FIRST REFORMED is not going to
be like any other standard order religious film.
Schrader's use of the borderline extinct and square Academy ratio
further gives his film an immediate transfixing allure that helps propel
our interest in it forward. The
overall visual style in FIRST REFORMED is deceptively economical, which
favors long takes, restrained camera moves and compositions, and an
abundance of silent moments of characters staring at each other while
struggling to make sense of things. The
less is more aesthetic works wonders here and allows for the film's
individual moments to speak more volumes than they would have with a more
distracting sense of style. In
a modern cinematic world when so many novice directors seem impatient and
yearn to thrust viewers forward without looking back, Schrader employs
a more slow burn approach that gets under our skin.
The aforementioned scene between Toller and Michael is indicative
of that: It's a long scene of equally long stretches of dialogue and
virtually no action of any sort, but it shows the inherent power to having
two gifted actors harnessing Schrader's evocative exchanges.
Toller is one of
the more intrinsically fascinating characters to emerge from an American
movie in quite some time. He's
driven by his deep commitments to his church, his attendees, and to God,
but his whole ordeal with Mary and her disturbed husband has forced him to
fundamentally rethink his place in the world.
Toller's own haunting past has, no doubt, fuelled his alcoholism
and sense of introverted doubt about the world, but with Michael entering
the picture - a man willing to commit suicide and perhaps hurting and/or
killing others in the process as a statement about his own beliefs -
Toller's struggles seem to magnify by the day.
Even though he doesn't initially condone Michael's methods, he
still empathizes with his concerns about the world around him, mostly
because he, more or less, agrees with him in principle.
How to you change someone's mind about something when they're so
inescapably committed to that cause that they're willing to die for it?
If there is one
small nitpicky criticism to levy Schrader with is that FIRST REFORMED will
have many people drawing unavoidable comparisons of it to TAXI DRIVER,
another Schrader penned film about a restless and sick loner that's
driving to transcribing his thoughts in diary form.
Also, both Travis Bickle in that film and Toller here are tormented
souls that both have to deal with nagging thoughts about using violence to
seek some sort of personal salvation.
Despite these overt similarities, Hawke - a ridiculously underrated
actor that has escaped Oscar glory throughout his career - makes this
character wholly and uniquely his own in a performance of nuance and raw,
internalized intensity. Hawke
has given many routinely fine performances in the past, but very few of
his roles have come close to the type of polarizing and unsettling
character his immerses himself within here.
As a person burdened with apocalyptic notions of right and wrong
and feeling the need to act upon them when common sense dictates he
shouldn't, Toller is equal parts sad and frightening, and Hawke
masterfully knows how to seesaw between both extremes.
FIRST REFORMED is
an uncompromisingly dark and depressing film at times, and its final
fifteen or so minutes are almost punishingly hard to endure.
I left my screening feeling both mesmerized and exhausted by what I
saw; even days after seeing it I still struggle to piece together what I
should make of its bleak and scandalous ending (some will either embrace
its nightmarish ambiguities...or despise them).
I ultimately love the fact that FIRST REFORMED never fits into neat
compartmentalization as a genre film, nor does it sheepishly hold viewers
by the hand to reassure them that everything will conclude as they have
foreseen. And at 71-years-old
the veteran in Schrader proves here that he's still capable of being a
bravura cinematic provocateur. FIRST
REFORMED will stay with me for an awfully long time to contemplate its
challenging complexities. It
left me utterly spent, but it's a work that demands to be seen and is one
of 2018's best.