Movie Review: ‘First Reformed’


Plot: Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) oversees the First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, New York. Essentially, nothing more than a historical site funded by the mega-church Abundant Life, Toller’s congregation is small. Divorced, disillusioned, drinking heavily, and possibly suffering from cancer, Toller’s world is upended when he begins counseling environmental activists Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael Mansala (Philip Ettinger).

 

Review:  One of the joys of reviewing films is when you see something you totally didn’t expect. Or to be brutally honest, to be proven wrong. Paul Schrader is a director and screenwriter that I thought time had passed by. Yes he wrote or co-wrote brilliant films like Taxi Driver, The Yakuza, and Raging Bull and directed excellent movies such as Affliction and Auto Focus, however his last three films including the horrendous movies The Dying of the Light and The Canyons, suggested a man whose best days were behind him. I mean honestly, how good could First Reformed be?

Well First Reformed isn’t good. It isn’t great. It’s a damn masterpiece is what it is.

A scathing, brutal, and honest meditation on faith, fanaticism, and the environment, First Reformed proves to be one of the most original stories in recent years and the best film I’ve seen in 2018. Schrader’s screenplay sizzles with tension and pathos. Equal parts thriller, meditative drama, and existential set piece, Schrader’s film will make you think far after the credits have rolled.

As taut and well-rounded as Schrader’s script is, his flawless direction exceeds even his biting and honest dialogue. It’s shocking to think a man like Schrader after forty years in the business could deliver his best work in his 70s but somehow he manages to do so. There’s a meticulousness, a precision to First Reformed that you rarely see. Every shot possesses meaning. Much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Schrader uses establishing shots to tell the story rather than relying on exposition. There’s a beauty in the silence as we first see Toller’s church or watch him write with precision in his journal while he drinks whiskey. The continual use of black and white presents a dichotomy that matches the themes of the film. In fact it almost feels like a black and white film without being in black and white. Credit goes to cinematographer Alexander Dynan who executes Schrader’s vision perfectly whether it’s the frequently used long shots or a Terrence Malick like sequence in the third act.

Great directors make the people around them great and First Reformed is no exception. This is the performance of a lifetime for Ethan Hawke. He disappears into the role of Toller in a way heretofore unseen. Toller is a man haunted by the fact that he encouraged his son to enlist in the military only to have him die six months later. While he puts on a good face for his congregation and pastor Joel Jeffers (a standout performance from Cedric Kyles AKA Cedric the Entertainer) the truth is his faith is eroding. Yet ironically, he’s able to find it again not through heavenly means but Earthly environmental methods. Hawke instills real gravitas into the role as Toller’s character evolves.

Amanda Seyfried also succeeds as Mary in a career performance. She infuses an innocence to Mary that belies her nature. Mary is not nearly as radical or pessimistic as her husband. She wants to be a mother despite her own husband’s desire to abort the baby, not because he doesn’t want it but because he’s leery of bringing a child into a world he believes is headed for destruction. Seyfried’s Mary in many ways serves as a muse for Toller and their relationship is unique to say the least.

First Reformed is not an easy watch. I hesitate to call it a downer but it does possess a dark and brooding quality that will turn people off. Yet it’s a movie that really challenges the audience and makes them think, something all great cinema does. People may also not appreciate the ending which comes off surprisingly uplifting if possibly ambiguous depending on how you interpret the final scene. I for one thought it was the perfect ending to an astonishing film.

From a personal cinema inventory, First Reformed sets the bar high to the heavens. I doubt I will see a more engrossing, challenging, and contemplative 2018 film.

 

My rating System:

0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
3 Bad
4 Sub Par
5 Average
6 Ok
7 Good
8 Very Good
9 Great
10 A Must See

First Reformed:  10/10

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