Review: First Reformed

First Reformed
10 10

PLOT: A reverend (Ethan Hawke) suffering a crisis of faith, becomes involved with a young couple, both of whom are environmental activists, and open his eyes to issues that soon lead him astray.

REVIEW: You really never know, do you? That’s the thought that kept racing through my mind as I watched Paul Schrader’s FIRST REFORMED. While I’ve long admired Schrader both as a writer (TAXI DRIVER) and as a director (HARDCORE, BLUE COLLAR), I figured his real, seminal works were behind him. Chalk that up to ignorance on my part, but it’s hard to believe that the same man who struggled through THE CANYONS and had THE DYING OF THE LIGHT taken away from him (although he bounced back with the fun DOG EAT DOG), could refocus his energies on what might emerge as his defining work – and is certainly fated to be one of the best American films of the year.

Opting for the films of Robert Bresson as a reference, down to his use of an austere 1:33:1 Academy ratio, FIRST REFORMED ranks as one of the best films ever made about faith, getting right what other ones, such as the recent MOTHER! got wrong. Schrader himself is the product of a strict, Calvinist upbringing, but his film is no rallying cry against religion. Here, Hawke is shown to be an employee of a huge, mega-church called “Abundant Life”, which allows him to run a historical congregation (the First Reformed church) which stays open on the merits of it being a former stop in the Underground Railroad. He’s a glorified museum guide, but Schrader never depicts the higher-ups at Abundant Life as sinister or mercenary. The charismatic head of the church, played by Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer) is shown to be a compassionate, good-natured man, albeit more willing to tow a party line than Hawke’s Toliver, earning him scorn.

The film unfolds through entries into Toliver’s diary, with him explaining that he’s a former military chaplain, who encouraged his son to join up, only for the young man to die six months into his tour, a fact his wife blamed him for, leading to their divorce. He now lives a life of isolation as a weird form of penance, shirking the amorous, aggressive advances of the Abundant Life choir director (Victoria Hill). He is, however, devoted to his flock, drawing him into the lives of Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger) a young couple expecting a child, who moonlight as eco-warriors. Michael is so wrapped-up in thoughts of environmental doom he wants Mary to abort their child, leading to some heart-to-heart conversations with Toliver, whose eyes are opened to the dire state of the world in a big way.

Hawke’s performance is up there with his best, with his Toliver a tough guy to pin down – at once sympathetic, but later also quite unbalanced and unpredictable. Already sick with a malady that had him peeing blood, as he gets more into environmental facts, he becomes weaker and weaker, as if his soul is being eaten alive, and Schrader takes the character into dark territory calling to mind his own TAXI DRIVER. In some ways, this feels like the unofficial third part of a loose trilogy he started with that film, and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, although of course, this is him solely, without Scorsese.

Hawke deserves Academy attention for his role, as does Cedric the Entertainer frankly, in a piece of against-type casting that works stunningly well. Amanda Seyfried is similarly good, even if her role is ultimately more symbolic, in that she’s the only hope in Toliver’s rotting existence. I’ll admit that Schrader’s made a film that makes for an uneasy sit and to say its uncommercial would be an understatement. Yet, it’s also compelling and most definitely never, ever boring. If you’re an adventurous filmgoer, this is one of the must-see films of the year, and hopefully the amazing start of a new chapter for both Schrader and Hawke, who take their place among the greats with this.

Source: JoBlo.com



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