It’s that time of year again. The run-up to awards season, when I catch up on all the films I missed for one reason or another. And since First Reformed is already winning top honors in the early year-end critics’ awards, I thought I should watch it. It’s from Paul Schrader who was the hottest writer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mosquito Coast) and sometimes director (American Gigolo) in the 70s and 80s and then mostly faded away. But with this film, it’s clear he’s still got it. He knows how to draw a deeply flawed man in a deepening personal crisis, and his Rev. Ernest Toller played masterfully by Ethan Hawke (Juliet, Naked, Maudie, Boyhood) is his best character in decades. Divorced, ill, drinking, and questioning his faith, Toller is circling the drain, while the tiny church he heads is planning its 250th anniversary rededication and one of his parishioners is in desperate need of guidance he’s ill-equipped to give. This is not a happy movie, but it is intensely thought-provoking and a glorious return to form for one of our great filmmakers.
Much like Schrader’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Reverend Toller is a loner who sees the world as if he is outside it. His church has more tourists than parishioners. He lives a monastic life in the rectory. He’s close to no one and pushes everyone away. But when one of his congregants, a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to come talk with her husband who is in need of some spiritual advice, he comes to their house. Michael (Philip Ettinger) is an environmental activist who questions bringing a child into this world that we’re destroying. And Rev. Toller who lost his own son to war cannot imagine any father who would choose not to have one. But Michael’s environmental urgency speaks to him on a spiritual level forcing him to ask, “Will God forgive us?” There’s a megachurch, which is overseeing Toller’s little church, and a billionaire funder of it who happens to be a huge corporate polluter who doesn’t want anything political mentioned in the church, but that’s really just a side story. It’s the Reverend’s evolution from despair to action that drives the narrative.
I’ll admit that faith-based films are not usually my cup of tea, but this one, rooted in a real world moral crisis, spoke to me. Ethan Hawke gives his best performance to date, and the stark visuals certainly add to the bleak world the film inhabits. But Schrader’s script and direction make First Reformed a must see film. It’s not a happy ending or neatly wrapped up story. But you’ll be thinking about it long after you’ve seen it.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: Paul Schrader recently lamented that audiences aren’t taking serious movies seriously enough, saying “It’s not that us filmmakers are letting you down, it’s you audiences are letting us down.” I understand his point, and there are plenty of smaller films that deserve to have been seen and lauded (e.g. Blindspotting). But I also get why mainstream audiences are not going to opt for this particular film over the myriad movies that provide a more uplifting, fun or ‘simply’ enjoyable cinematic escape in these strange times. I agree that Ethan Hawke delivers an amazing performance (I hope he gets nominated for Best Actor) but the film itself was too much a downer for me, especially this time of year. HOWEVER, that’s just me! If you’re looking for a unique, thought-provoking film, First Reformed is certainly a worthy addition for those who want to fill their queue with artier-leaning fare. -hb]