Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles
Runtime: 113 mins
MPAA Rating: R
Grief, guilt, hope, despair, mortality, lust, greed, alcoholism, environmentalism, religion, church politics, and the meaning of life. Just one of those concepts is typically enough to tackle in one story, but Paul Schrader decides to tackle them all in the highly thought-provoking First Reformed.
Set in Snowbridge, New York, this film is a character-study centered around the melancholic Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). Toller leads a sparse congregation at the historic First Reformed Church, a former stop on the Underground Railroad, where he both lives and works. From the moment Toller is introduced, we see a man who is meditative and deeply affected by inner turmoil to the point he is questioning his life’s meaning. We first meet Toller as he narrates his intention to keep a journal of his life for the next year at which point he will destroy it; this opening helps to clearly establish Toller as an introspective man searching to find answers about himself and his life. Paul Schrader writes and Ethan Hawke portrays Toller as listless and reserved, but deeply contemplative and articulate as well. Underneath his pastoral robes, Toller is a sickly, single middle-aged man who appears to be a borderline alcoholic. As the story progresses, more and more is revealed about how he is suffering a crisis of faith, mortality, and burdening guilt.
The plot is kicked into motion when one of Toller’s service attendees Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to council her environment-championing husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who holds that it is evil to bring a child into a dying, soon-to-be-uninhabitable world to lead a life of misery. Consequently, Michael wants Mary, who is pregnant with their first child, to have an abortion to assuage his moral qualms. Toller agrees to Mary’s request and meets with Michael who explains his position in more detail. What immediately grabs your attention is that Toller does not outright rebuke Michael’s pro-abortion stance or give any sort of typical pastor responses about the preciousness of life. Instead he launches into an anecdote revealing the source of his own personal guilt. As the story progresses, you see the conflict in Toller grow and you understand on an emotional and psychological level why he starts to go down certain paths; at the center of everything, there is an examination of the duality of hope and despair within his life. The film follows him across an arc which drastically changes how he assesses the meaning of his life.
Concurrent with these events are Toller’s interactions with the local well-financed megachurch Abundant Life and its morally high-grounded pastor (Cedric Kyles). The film not-so-subtly provides commentary on how a church’s ethics can easily stray when satisfying the desires of corporate donors supplants moral uprightness. Many of the justifications for certain actions and philosophical conclusions reached will raise eyebrows but you can understand the motivation behind why each character chooses to believe what he or she does. Schrader’s script is nuanced and is able to effectively develop intriguing personal and philosophical conflicts.
The film’s visuals are characterized by precise framing in that the camera is almost always completely stationary leaving the viewer to focus on the character movements, interactions, and dialogue. The lack of camera movement also serves to reinforce how strictly grounded in reality the film is; I believe the few times the camera does in fact move are deliberate in order to contrast the previous notion. Additionally, the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio will be immediately apparent to the viewer though I do not think it is anything more than an aesthetic choice. The visual presentation is understated without being eye-popping, and it is definitely some of the best cinematography of the year.
As for drawbacks, this film reaches some strongly surreal points that I will not spoil, but, during these portions of the film, the technical quality is severely lacking. I am not entirely sure if it is intentional, but it is distracting nonetheless. For many, the ending could be seen as a significant letdown due to how the film constructs everything leading to that point. However, I preferred it to the more obvious route that it could have chosen, and I believe I correctly interpreted the director’s intention due to the manner in which he films the final scenes. I wish I could discuss the ending of this film more without diving into SPOILERS.
First Reformed deals with a slew of interconnected issues and takes us through the conflicted development of a multi-dimensional human character. The story is driven by Ethan Hawke’s fantastic performance; even if you do not like him, you are fascinated by him as a human being, weaknesses and all. It is a fantastic achievement, and has stayed on my mind ever since I first watched it. By ambitiously and creatively addressing a number of complex issues wrapped around an iconic performance, Paul Schrader has created one of the best films of 2018.
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