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Film Review – First Reformed (2018)

First Reformed

After writing movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader cemented himself as an industry mainstay.  If he wished, Schrader could have stopped after those two creations and left behind a legacy that many would have never matched…and it wouldn’t have been close.  But Schrader has continued to create over the years (with varying degrees of success I might add), and his latest film, First Reformed, has been heralded as one his finest achievements in his career.  With the films mentioned above in that same discussion, that distinction is no small feat.

The following review will be spoiler free.

Synopsis

Directed By: Paul Schrader

Written By: Paul Schrader

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, and Van Hansis

As a former military chaplain, Reverend Toller (Hawke) has since moved to a smaller church in upstate New York (which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary) where his congregation is dwindling compared to the much larger Abundant Life church in the area.

Eventually, he meets Mary (Seyfried) who ask him to counsel her radical environmentalist husband.  But rather than helping the man find some sort of enlightenment or religious peace, their interactions together send Toller down a much darker path where he further questions his past and, more severely, his faith.

Background

With many calling First Reformed the “best movie of 2018,” many others who hear that praise will raise their expectations to an abnormally high degree — only to leave the theater sadly disappointed.

Interestingly enough, films from A24 seem to receive high marks from critics only to then earn poor marks from audiences far more often than films released from other distributors.  A lot of the commotion comes from their films that they push to more mainstream audiences. Famously, The Witch was called “one of the scariest movies ever” back in 2016 only to then receive a “C-” CinemaScore.  Similarly, It Comes at Night scored a “D” grade.  Just this past weekend, Hereditary earned a “D+” score from audiences after earning absurdly high praise from critics at festivals earlier this year.  To put those grades in perspective, anything below a “B” normally signifies rather unfavorable responses to the film.

First Reformed wasn’t released to a wide audience in its first weekend so it does not have a CinemaScore, but there’s a clear divide between critics and fans in regards to A24 films.  Are these films overhyped?  Are they mismarketed?  Or is it something else?  I honestly can’t really answer that question without going down a rabbit hole (although I’m just curious enough to plunge head first into said rabbit hole in a possible future article).  Regardless, A24 continues to make films that challenge individuals and I’m down for more films cut from the same cloth.

first reformed

image via Vox

Paul Schrader Directs the Hell out of First Reformed

First Reformed is another slow-moving, pensive film from A24.  That’s going to turn off many people almost immediately, yet there’s so much that Paul Schrader packs into each frame.

First Reformed is filmed essentially in a 4×3 aspect ratio (it’s technically 1.37: 1, but I digress).  To the layman, this means that First Reformed is framed more like a box than a rectangle.  The effect makes the entire film feel incredibly intimate from start to finish.  Everyone has to get a bit closer to each other.  Schrader rarely cuts either, so he’ll focus on individual characters for minutes on end, allowing the viewer to focus in on the little cracks and ticks of each character while accenting the sense of each character feeling uncomfortable as they discuss rather difficult, lofty subjects.  Watching characters squirm at the mention of the end times as they do in First Reformed is the best form of drama you can ask for.

Without making a show of it, Schrader packs each scene with a certain dynamism by remaining subdued.  It’s actively quiet, eliciting the maximum amount of contemplation.

first reformed

image via Slash Film

Ethan Hawke Offers One of His Best Performances

At the center of it all is Ethan Hawke who offers a haunting, Taxi-Driver-like performance.  Dare I say, this might be one of Ethan Hawke’s finest performances to date.  His character is the typical male figure that falls into a rather unsettling state that we’ve seen from Schrader so many times before, but Hawke adds his own spin to the familiar formula with his reserved, calming nature.  As a person that grew up with an influence from the church, I immediately gravitated towards Hawke’s worldly knowledge that a priest or reverend normally has.  He’s able to quickly think on his feet when a struggling individual asks a rather difficult question.

The drama comes when his character comes across a litany of aggressively damaging events.  It’s a crisis of faith that damages a psyche that always had cracks…even if they might not have been visible.  Hawke quietly scrunches his face a little more as time passes.  You can see the weight of the world on his face as he slowly loses himself.

Get this man an Oscar!!

first reformed

image via IndieWire

First Reformed is Undeniably Frustrating

But for all its beauty and haunting performances, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated by First Reformed.  Who knows, maybe that’s the type of feeling that Schrader was attempting to pull out of the viewer.  After all, the film is at its core a crisis of faith and morality.  Those mixed signals might be the central purpose of the film.

The drama comes from a character that is a radical environmentalist that Hawke attempts to council.  In these discussions, the destruction of the Earth is discussed with an almost reprehensible lack of subtlety, and that sentimentality permeates throughout the rest of the film.  It’s always there.  At the same time, however, those that suffer from some sort of mental illness are the only ones to talk with this level of fear.  But then again, it’s still annoyingly blunt.

I also struggle with how Amanda Seyfried‘s character is written.  She acts like someone who is stuck between two extremes: someone who is emotionally cold and someone who is tempestuous.  Her character has some rather awful things come her way yet she remains flat and unaffected.  Yet at the same time, she lacks agency to act on her own, like those events crippled her every thought.  One could argue that she’s bottling her emotions to stay guarded from more hardship (and that’s a perfectly acceptable reading into her character), but I never felt that struggle.  She’s impenetrable.

Either way, there’s one thing I’m sure of: First Reformed will stick in my mind for quite some time.  For all its perceived flaws, Schrader succeeded in creating a memorable piece of art.

first reformed

image via Vulture

Final Thoughts

My mind feels split in two when it comes to First Reformed.  There’s so much beautifully haunting imagery and amazing performances for it to captivate at every turn.  At the same time, there’s some incredibly heavy-handed themes that counteract the more subdued elements which make the film as a whole feel like one of Cedric the Entertainer’s on-the-nose, aggressive sermons in the film itself.  But, those same cringeworthy moments come from individuals with clear mental ailments.  But, there’s also some woefully underwritten characters at the center of the story.

I’m. so. confused!

Like the struggling pastor at the center of First Reformed, I don’t have many clear answers.  Yet, First Reformed will be a movie I think about for a very, very long time.

Grade: B+

first reformed

image via Variety


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Nick Kush

A current young professional, Nick founded MovieBabble in October of 2016 in order to provide insightful film analysis that is meant to educate and entertain. Nick is also a member of the Internet Film Critics Society. You can follow Nick at the official MovieBabble Twitter account @MovieBabble_

10 Responses

  1. Never heard about this movie before this review. Upon reading it, all aspects regarding it’s writing seems to be the most challenging. In terms films discussing faith, and morality from a priest it’s pretty difficult for me to find that subject quite as compelling after Martin Scorsese tackle it with such nuance, depth in the very masterfully made Silence. First Reformed does sound like something that’ll offer me more of the same for that sort of discussion in a film that’ll challenge me mentally, but won’t come out with a clear cut view on it like I did with Silence. Shamefully, my local theater ain’t playing this XD

    • Nick Kush says:

      That’s a good comparison in terms of the lofty discussions that take place! And you’re so right about not coming out with a clear cut view. It’s one of those movies that likes to pose a lot of questions without ever offering concrete answers.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I liked it, but that’s a fair point about the Seyfried character. Until I realized the plot wasn’t going there, I took her coldness as a hint that maybe she’d murdered her husband.

    As for the non-subtlety I didn’t mind it, since it made sense in the context of a character explaining his political views. Furthermore, I think one of the goals of this film was to try and reframe/redraw attention to the climate change debate.

  3. Great review, Nick. Seems like a very fair assessment! Interesting how you highlight your issues with it but still acknowledge that there’s a chance it’s very deliberate from Schrader. Just makes me want to see it even more.

    • Nick Kush says:

      I’m still not sure what to think of it! Lol who knows, it might be one of my favorite movies of the year by the time it’s all said and done

  4. Keith Noakes says:

    Mary and her husband felt more like plot devices than actual characters. They can go ahead and give Ethan Hawke the Oscar though.

  5. Nick Kush says:

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