Sundance London 2018: First Reformed Review
It’s been quite some time since Paul Schrader made a film that simply had to be seen (we’re talking almost a generation) and First Reformed has bounced around the festival circuit since Venice in 2017 receiving acclaim from almost every quarter. When you’re capable of writing scripts like Taxi Driver (which lives on in this film) and Raging Bull and make your directorial debut with a gritty classic like Blue Collar you earn the right to endless patience.
Schrader has always been fascinated by the tortured souls of men struggling with their own conscience and it proves to be fertile ground once again for the writer-director, this time taking religion and those who hide behind it to task. Mixed into this deadly straight-faced drama is the wider notion of mankind’s ethical responsibility and the trail of wreckage unexpected loss leaves in its wake.
Ethan Hawke delivers what is probably a career best performance as Reverend Toller who presides over the First Reformed Church, jokingly referred to as a “souvenir shop” by locals and on the verge of celebrating its 250th birthday. Toller narrates much of the film himself, reading through an experimental handwritten journal he has committed to for an entire year, revealing his innermost thoughts, raw and uncut.
Only a handful of people attend his Sunday sermons compared to the nearby Abundant Life megachurch which welcomes 5,000 locals, led by the charismatic Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) and his assistant Ester (Victoria Hill). Toller shares an intimate past with Ester, one he views as a sin against the memory of his marriage which crumbled after he pushed his son into joining the army. A duty which would kill the young soldier in Iraq.
When asked to speak with Michael (Philip Ettinger), the husband of young pregnant parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried), he finds a man unable to cope with the idea of bringing a baby into a world doomed by its bleak ecological future. He is so entrenched within his extremist environmental beliefs that he can only see the complete self-destruction of the world once his child has grown. Mary is concerned her husband is becoming increasingly suicidal and Toller commits to helping him find a way out of his despair.
There is an air of impending doom that hangs over the first two acts as we watch Toller slowly unravelling, struggling with an undetermined illness, drowning his kidneys in whiskey while a repressed bitterness gnaws away at his being. Hawke shows a spiritual man wrestling with his soul, experiencing a crisis of faith not just in God and but with humanity as a whole. Hawke gets the balance between anguish and sincerity just right and it’s a performance you can see being picked up in awards season later in the year.
Schrader connects the environmental and political themes together with clarity for two-thirds of the film and then appears to run out of road. The intense character study gives way to more conventional thriller tropes which culminates in a deeply unsatisfactory ending that feels out of place with such formal plot development. While the themes paraded for the first 80 minutes are hardly subtle they at least create philosophical boundaries that encourage a wider scope of thought.
Alexander Dynan’s photography sets a heavy-hearted atmosphere in the earlier part of the film, boxing Hawke inside a 1.37:1 aspect ratio examining every line and wrinkle across his face. It creates a clinical and sometimes distancing atmosphere that puts Toller into sharp focus, which makes it all the more unfortunate that introspection ultimately gives way to convention in the end. With First Reformed Schrader teases a long-awaited return to form but falls victim to uncertainty in much the same way as his beleaguered priest.
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