IFFBoston Movie Review: ‘First Reformed’
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer)
Plot: A priest questions his faith after a traumatic run in with an environmental activist.
In a Q&A after the screening, writer/director Paul Schrader described this as the film he swore he “would never make.”
Schrader was raised in a strict Christian community, where cinema was not allowed. When he finally rebelled against that and saw his first movie, what he came to realize is the spirit of cinema was not only NOT blasphemous but was congruous with his community’s faith-teaching. It could be supplementary.
It takes that idea and turns Ethan Hawke’s Father Toller into a mouthpiece for it. Toller is a former military chaplain, disillusioned after the death of his soldier son. He is semi-retired as the caretaker of a historical landmark church that is more tourist trap than holy place. It has been unceremoniously adopted by a local mega church, run by Cedric the Entertainer (credited here under his real name: Cedric Kyles). Although, he never turns away from his position as a faith leader, he seems generally resigned to taking a backseat in the community.
As Schrader’s mouthpiece, Toller doesn’t specifically talk about cinema (or even arts in general) but rather climate change. It is an interesting case for Toller to make considering the science surrounding climate change is often dismissed on the basis of religion. The fate of the Earth is God’s will, and man is incapable of changing that. Similar to how Schrader sees faith teaching in cinema, Toller sees humanity as agents of God’s will and pushes back the religious and ultimately political excuses for ignoring it. This is the struggle between Jesus’ way and the Church’s interests, which seems like an often repeated theme among Christian artists.
This position from the categorically silent Toller is at first inspired by and later complicated by a run in with a concerned local woman, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried), and her radical environmentalist husband. Her husband has finally returned home after some time spent in a Canadian prison related to his protesting. She fears he is depressed and paranoid and wants Toller to counsel him. This leads to the first of many conversations.
Toller and the husband’s conversation is an interesting one about faith and responsibility that only scratches at the surface of either. With the right dialog, someone may have extended it into a feature length. During it, Toller makes a great point about the darkness in everyone which the husband has simply given a face to. Although, it doesn’t matter because the husband has already planted a seed of concern in Toller, so Toller ends up voicing those concerns in a series of intimate, thought-provoking conversations with fellow members of his community.
It is what Schrader referred to as a “lean-in” performance. Hawke leans back giving less and less to the audience, and the audience is forced to lean in to get closer. I think Hawke is especially good at these kinds of performances; ones where he is forced to just fester in his own struggles. He is still mourning the loss of his son and the dissolution of his marriage, while trying to cure his unidentified illness with booze, and we can tell that his sense of purpose has been wounded by his ever-shrinking congregation and his futile role in it.
It is also the kind of role that Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver likes to associate with. It’s like he faces his own darkness by pushing his character’s into their own. I just think there are a few steps missing in between quiet concern and the volatility Toller eventually emotes. The path to self-destruction is set in front of us, but all of a sudden Toller is much further ahead than I thought he was. It sort of sapped the final moments of their drama for me.
All in all, I’m glad Schrader decided to make this. It is a different kind of challenge to explore spirituality explicitly rather than allegorically. I have a feeling I will be re-visiting the grade in the future.