Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston
The A24 train continues to tear down the tracks…
Having delivered his abilities to the likes of Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull, American Gigolo and…Dominion: The Prequel to The Exorcist, Paul Schrader is a man with serious screenwriting pedigree, but his directorial career has been a mixed bag of success, it’s fair to say. However, his deeper works and studies of faith, humanity, self-destruction, and redemption have marked him as a serious player in the Hollywood game – though one with no Academy Award nods, which is…odd.
In First Reformed, he tells the story of a conflicted priest, Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke), who heads up a historical, but unpopulated, church (First Reformed) in New York funded by a local megachurch – Abundant Life. Without the support of Abundant Life’s abundant riches, First Reformed would wither and die and with the 250th anniversary approaching, the mega-rich owners want a smooth, non-political event. A meeting with radical-environmentalist Michael (Philip Ettinger) and his pregnant wife Mary (Seyfried) leads to Toller doubting his faith, belief in God and the Church itself – but the money men are having none of it. Physically and psychologically disintegrating, Toller must question everything, however dark it may be if he is to reach any kind of conclusion to his struggles.
Holy God, Jesus, Mary, and Lucifer himself.
This low-key, serious character study bristles with a restrained fury – mainly channelled through the magnificent performance from Ethan Hawke – as the questions of faith, environmental issues, greed, need and the Church’s role in all of it are launched like a rocket into the audience but crucially, wisely (and Schrader-ly), no answers are given. Not just that, ponderings of the future are offered and the movie is absolutely talking about the here and now of the world. It’s cautionary, it’s bold and it’s fantastic.
Ethan Hawke delivers a career-best performance as the raw, damaged Reverend Toller whose own personal struggles is at odds with his prevailing attitudes towards God and the Church – and especially those behind Abundant Life. His subtle fury and quiet pathos are mesmerising to follow all the way to the ambiguously marvellous conclusion. Cedric the Entertainer was a surprisingly inspired piece of casting and a very good Amanda Seyfried is a world away from her Mamma Mia persona here.
Though seemingly a trait of A24, Schrader (and DoP Alexander Dynon) has crafted a delightful looking movie. There are some seriously good-looking shots in this movie – though it’s muted visually, an artistic flare bleeds through every scene – whether it’s the rare flashes of colour or the stage play settings accompanied by static camerawork, the attention to detail is excellent.
Also, there's a wonderful gospel version of Neil Young's Who's Gonna Stand Up?
On a side note, at times, Reverend Toller bears a striking resemblance to Father Dyer from The Exorcist - unrelated, but I noticed it anyway.
The word of God plays second fiddle to the great American dollar and profits are put before prophets. Part scathing, part ruminative, part tragic but profoundly affecting, First Reformed is an astonishing piece of cinema. This is a movie that needs to be seen, and if not for the subject matter, then the remarkable performances and technical work on show. I’m already excited to see this being overlooked by the Academy.
September 1st 2018