A film review by Craig J. Koban July 16, 2018

FIRST REFORMED jjjj

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.  

No, FIRST 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 scenes. 

Toller soon 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.   

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