One of the best things a well written movie can do is slowly build tension throughout. There is something about it that just slowly edges the viewer to the edge of their seat. Writer and Director Paul Schrader crafted a superb screenplay with his latest film First Reformed, and his confident directing made it even more powerful. I mean come on, this is coming from the same guy who wrote the iconic Taxi Driver. And in some small ways, First Reformed gives off Taxi Driver vibes. The biggest difference is that First Reformed is very much a faith driven film that demonstrates the current state of religious affairs. One could say that First Reformed is a mixture of Taxi Driver and 2016’s Silence.
A former military chaplain is wracked by grief over the death of his son. Mary is a member of his church whose husband, a radical environmentalist, commits suicide, setting the plot in motion.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best and possibly his most mature role in his career with his character Reverend Toller. From the start of the film, one can tell that Toller is a broken man in more than one way. He lost his son in the Iraqi war and because of that, his wife divorced him. To add to that, he is in bad health and hardly anyone attends his 250-year-old “Souvenir Church” as its called. Near the start of the film, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Toller and asks him to talk to her husband Michael. She claims that he could use some guidance after he got out of jail. They are both environmentalists and Michael is especially pessimistic about the future of the planet. Because of this he wants Mary, who is pregnant, to get an abortion. Reverend Toller looks at this as an opportunity to help and possibly give more purpose to his life. Ultimately, it leads to the suicide of Michael of which Toller discovers himself. From there, that is when the movie really picks up.
Reverend Toller comes to a few realizations after Michael’s suicide. He starts doing his own research on environmental issues and they open his eyes to everything Michael was telling him about. He begins to wonder how the powerful influences of the church virtually have no impact on the issues in the environment. This is where the screenplay becomes very well crafted. It is very difficult for a writer to walk the tightrope of something political without sounding too preachy. While the subject matter isn’t always subtle, it never truly feels preachy or annoying. Paul Schrader is just a brilliant writer, simple as that.
First Reformed is very much a slow burning, disturbing, and cynical film. As the movie progresses into the third act, it gets much darker than anyone saw coming. Without spoiling anything, just know that there are a few scenes that will make your jaw drop. Reverend Toller is a tortured man who believes he has nothing to live for, no purpose in life. It seems that Mary is the only person he has grown close to since her husband’s death. Hawke’s human performance makes everything his character is going through so believable, and that makes the third act even harder to watch.
The only issue with First Reformed is that it takes a little while to get going. Some fat could have been trimmed down as well. Other than that, it remains engaging and thought-provoking up until the final seconds. The ending is one of those that will have audiences split. I personally felt robbed with the ending, but as I sat on it and the movie as a whole for a day, I finally realized that the ending was actually perfect and incredibly bold. On the technical side, the cinematography is very simple and subtle, but it fits the screenplay and it evolves with the tone of the film as the plot thickens.
First Reformed is Paul Schrader’s best film in years, easily. He definitely took a risk, but with his poised direction and talented cast, his profound film came together well. There is just one line I can’t get out of my head since the credits started rolling… “Will God forgive us?” Will he forgive us for what we’ve done to the earth? For our sins? Seeing Reverend Toller struggle with this question is almost heartbreaking for a man who has been through so much. Go see First Reformed in theaters this weekend.
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