Film Review – First Reformed (2018)
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.
Directed By: Paul Schrader
Written By: Paul Schrader
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on First Reformed? Comment down below!
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