Since the Venice Film Festival in 2017 I’ve eagerly awaited the opportunity to see one of the biggest buzzworthy movies from the competition, “First Reformed”. I got that opportunity this past week and I have to say it did not disappoint. As a man who questions religion AND science simultaneously “First Reformed” is a rare treat that questions public opinion and the status quo as well as the pretentiousness and righteousness of the religious community without being downright disrespectful. But just because it worked for me on a personal level doesn’t make it a great film right? Well let’s dive deeper and see if this movie is more than just a ballsy critique of belief. This is my review of “First Reformed”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“First Reformed” follows Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain haunted by a past where he urged his son into the armed forces only for that son to die in Iraq leading the dissolve of his marriage. In the present day he presides over a small church and historical landmark called First Reformed, owned by a much larger community super church. Toller is approached by a young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfriend) who seeks the reverend’s help with her husband, a radical environmentalist questioning the future of an abusive humanity. Their conversations eventually lead to a tragic turn of events that causes the reverend to question his faith and the boundaries and relationships between science, business and religion all the while considering his own violent act that he believes could be God’s will. The film is overlaid with narration from Toller who is writing his experiences and revelations in a journal.
Distributed by the always spectacular A24 and written and directed by Paul Schrader, the man who helped give us some of cinema’s best like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”, “First Reformed” lives up to lofty expectations and brings out the best of Schrader’s abilities as a film connoisseur. Destined to be a controversial watch for some, “First Reformed” works mostly in its critique of the hypocrisy of society, especially the religious community, without fully vilifying people of faith. On the contrary the film actually kind of implores a faith based life, but questions whether or not humanity has lost its way and what the priorities of such beliefs should be. It’s a thought provoking film that mixes environmentalist themes and religious undertones seamlessly to bend the boundaries of science and religion without making either perspective feel fully inferior or superior to the other. Rather “First Reformed” makes a bold statement that both sides of the argument have been corrupted by acts of extremist or the lust for power and money. It respects both sides of the argument but is also brutally honest in its logic and script which makes for a fascinating and eye-opening experience to say the least, and I’m just getting started.
The beauty of “First Reformed” is that it avoids being pretentious. Yes, it’s an arthouse film that “goes there” so to speak, but for the most part I felt like it wasn’t trying to be more than is had to be. It can feel preachy at times yes, but the excellent balance of themes keeps it from feeling like a forceful call to action. In a way it’s more a cautionary tale than anything warning about the dangers of a war of ideals that can corrupt even the best of us. The journey is confined to one man’s perspective rather than focusing on the world at large and Reverend Toller never denies religion, only questions how religion has been corrupted and twisted into a shell of its former self. He also doesn’t justify the planned actions of the environmental extremist he is charged with helping and never fully embraces science seeing the world as God’s gift that we are abusing. It’s rare that a movie tries to make powerful points with such a perfectly balanced approach and considering how ruthless and brutal “First Reformed” tends to be in getting its points across it’s a credit to Schrader that this movie remains both watchable and resonant despite what could be interpreted as heavy handed but timely storytelling.
This film wouldn’t be what it is without the incredible work from star Ethan Hawke who portrays Reverend Toller with a smooth, unassuming personality that covers up deeper, more aggressive thoughts we, the audience, are privy to via journal entries. Hawke delivers some great subtle one liners that in themselves are thought provoking and perfectly present the evolution of his character from a peaceful reverend to a disillusioned believer struggling with his faith and the part religion has come to play in the world around him. On a personal level I found myself relating to him because he represents everything I myself, and I think many people, have struggled with in our personal meditations on religion and humanity. Hawke’s Rev. Toller is so well defined in such a simple way that he feels truly real and at times it even feels like we’re getting a private look into a life we shouldn’t see. Eventually Toller’s struggles bring him to the brink of something destructive and although we see this brewing the entire film it still keeps us on the edge of our seats because Hawke sells the “will he or won’t he” indecisiveness of his character. We become invested in his decision, almost like his choices and his sanity are the last chain of hope for the future of mankind. We can only watch helplessly and hope he sees the light and finds his peace in a better way. This is the kind of character depth that makes movies such a great artistic experience. When the audience can invest in and see themselves in the person on screen to the point where it forces them to contemplate what THEY would do in those shoes then you know you’ve done something perfectly right.
Of course none of this would really work if it wasn’t for great writing and some stylish cinematography that add flair and substance to “First Reformed”. This is a powerful film that required a lot of heart and commitment to pull off despite a simple premise and setting. Writer/director Paul Schrader proves he still knows how to get the job done with a smooth, sometimes artsy shooting style that lingers at times to give the audience a moment to take in a scene and a script filled with quotable lines and subtleties that build on the mentality of the characters. This creative and controlled style helps “First Reformed” shine as a great example of filmmaking with a purpose done right and serves as a reminder that movies are first and foremost meant to be an art form that has a message and finds inventive ways to get that message across. The medium is a great source of entertainment to be sure, but once is a while it’s nice to see a deeper project that wants to resonate with the audience on a deeper level. “First Reformed” is far from the only movie to do that in 2018, but it’s one of the most complete in that lineup.
So, I know I’m lauding “First Reformed” here, but was there anything I didn’t like about this movie?
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
“First Reformed” is a great movie. I dare say one of the best of the year so far. However, its main flaw lie in one particular artistic production choice. The final moments of “First Reformed” are filled with all kinds of symbolic significance and a touching moment that’s been built up the entire movie, but then it just ends. It’s an abrupt ending that I think was done for the sake of style to make the viewer think and ponder, but the way it’s done gave me, and others I talked to in the theater, the impression that the movie was unfinished. Instead of feeling like a deep finale meant to make viewers dwell on the result it feels like the story just ends. Like Paul Schrader just decided to stop making a movie all of a sudden. Under other circumstances this creative choice would probably have added to the mystery and depth of the experience but not here. It’s one of a few decisions made with this movie that were clearly put in to add what feels like forced artistic merit to the production that didn’t need to be there. “First Reformed” works best as a stripped-down examination of a man questioning his faith and the environmental impact of humanity. It didn’t need to shoehorn in moments of attempted artistic brilliance to get the point across. I feel like maybe these moments will grow on me with further viewing, but reviews are based on the moment and in that moment I felt it was a bit much for an otherwise flawless movie.
I can also say that while Hawke is not the only great performance in this movie the rest of the cast doesn’t quite match up. Don’t get me wrong, everyone is on board for the experience and most of the actors do a brilliant job with their characters but Hawke’s all-in approach to Reverend Toller is actually so magnificent noone else really matches his intensity. It’s odd to criticize good performances, but its very apparent in this movie that Hawke put the most effort into his character while others gave it their all but didn’t seem to go that extra mile. I guess that’s a credit to his acting more than it is a knock on anyone else’s but regardless of how well everyone else pulls off their roles there’s clear disparity between the main character and everyone else around him. Maybe this was another stylistic choice to try and keep the focus on Toller and emphasize the ignorance or bland nature of the world around him, but it doesn’t feel purposeful. Still when the only complaints I came give the film is a questionable final moment and great acting overshadowed by even better acting you know I had to get really nitpicky in order to find any reason to criticize “First Reformed” in the first place.
“First Reformed” is a significant and mesmerizing piece of cinematic art in my humble opinion. It tackles relevant and controversial themes with taste, sincerity and finesse while also serving as a spectacular character study of a man who comes to question everything he thought about faith and the world around him. Ethan Hawke anchors the film with a mesmerizing performance complimented by great writing, smooth camerawork, and a careful attention to detail as well as a supporting cast who may not be able to keep up with Hawke but still turn in great performances all there own. “First Reformed” positions itself as a timely potential classic that deserves praise and respect if for no other reason than its willingness to explore the hypocrisy of man without outright vilifying anyone on either side of the social issues present in the story. This is what movies were made to do, explore the deeper aspects of humanity through creative, real and thought-provoking stories. It’s an incredible film and one I highly recommend if you get the chance.