First Reformed (2018)
First Reformed (2018)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.

Release Date: May 18th, 2018 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Paul Schrader Actors: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston, Bill Hoag

 


 

A

t the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, 46-year-old Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) decides to write a journal – a diary to be kept for exactly one year, at which time he’ll shred it and burn it. As he states, it’s a form of communication, a form of prayer; for the audience, it’s also a form of narration. As a former military man, who lost a son in the Iraq War – and a wife afterwards to the uncomfortableness of that loss – Toller has found temporary peace and a career with the church. Yet this experiment of chronicling his thoughts on paper is clearly a reaction to something dark occurring in his life – health issues paired with an escalating crisis of faith.

Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried) is concerned for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), who has just been released from prison in Canada for non-violent environmental activism and protests. He’s depressed and friendless, remaining unmotivated to do much at all, barely interested in picking up work at a local Home Depot, which Mary manages to secure for him. And she’s now pregnant, bringing further conflict into their marriage, as Michael doesn’t wish to bring a child into the world. Toller offers to speak with the young man, even though a neighboring fellowship with professional counselors would be better suited to help. When the reverend meets with Michael, he finds a man drowning in anguish, preoccupied by natural disasters and mankind’s negative impact on the planet – turning the world into a place unfit for new life.

“Courage is the solution to despair.” The first, most noticeable aspect of the film is the acting. Hawke is fully dedicated to his role, never once appearing as if a mere actor; here, it’s as if there is no script – the camera merely captures his persona in its natural state. Seyfried, too, speaks her lines with a naturalness that sounds spontaneously designed; the conversations are incredibly authentic. Plus, the diary entries give the story a shape, providing the ongoing events with a commentary track and more measured, carefully-worded explanations for thoughts and reactions, nicely complementing the flow of dialogue.

“These are frightening times … ” The film brings up an interesting analysis of modern children, who have social media capabilities to connect with everyone, yet remain more isolated than ever. Additionally, notes on global warming and the profits involved with harming the environment (embodied by Michael Gaston as evil corporate bigwig Edward Balq) amusingly clash with the prominent spirituality – and its complexities as Toller struggles with his beliefs, both of science and piety (aided by immoderate drinking and deteriorating health).

With Paul Schrader (of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” fame) at the helm, the central figure embarks on a familiarly self-destructive path, steadily growing more paranoid and incapable of effectively associating with others, leading to an outrageous plan to be heard – and to garner abrupt, chaotic change. The pacing could have been tighter, but the slow-burn vibe, the darkening tone, Hawke’s mesmerizing deterioration, and the shocking finale – certainly open to interpretation (Schrader isn’t concerned with conveying something totally concrete) – are quite absorbing. It’s original, confounding, and profound, though it culminates in an ending capable of exasperating half of its viewers, while giving the other half a glimmer of hope.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10