This was one of those films that left you feeling that it was a class assignment where you were required to write a paper outlining your reaction.
First Reformed needs to be seen given the legendary career of Writer/Director Paul Schrader. One has to say no more about this creative genius than to note that he was the screenwriter for Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Affliction (1997). Furthermore, A.O. Scott of the New York Times picked it as one of the two best films released to this point in 2018.
Having said that, First Reformed is a very difficult movie to adequately review. Telling the dark story of an emotionally troubled minister, it set me on a journey that required some contemplation to determine my honest reaction to this movie.
As noted, the movie centers on the Reverend Ernst Toller, a minister of a small church in Upstate New York celebrating its 250th anniversary. Though the church has great historical significance given that it was founded in the 1700s, the sad reality was that its congregation has dwindled to a few handful of local souls.
Reverend Toller carries some emotional baggage that has resulted in him dedicating a year to writing a daily diary. His son was killed in Iraq years earlier and he clearly has not recovered from that experience.
Regardless of your opinion of the film itself, the performance of Ethan Hawke creates a magnetic force that will at all times hold your attention. Mr. Hawke has developed in to one of the most daring actors appearing on the screen today, and you simply need to look at his role in such films as Richard Linklatter’s trilogy beginning with Before Sunrise (1995), the diabolical The Purge (2013) and the recent Maudie as proof of his acting range. It is to his everlasting credit that he will embrace small roles in eccentric films without the slightest concern of pursuing a big man on a cinematic campus image.
Let me simply say that the film revolves around two crises. The first occurs when the minister is asked by Mary, a pregnant wife and member of the congregation played by Amanda Seyfried, to counsel her troubled husband. In the process, the reverend finds himself talking to a young man who is contemplating killing his newborn rather than bring the child in to a decaying world of little hope.
The second crisis in the film circles around the role of big business interests in preventing any meaningful governmental progress in combating our growing climate problem. While Mary’s husband is clearly a lost soul, the reverend has to confront influential business leaders who want to control the anniversary celebration of his church while simultaneously proudly contributing to the toxic pollution spreading around our country.
Mr. Hawke’s reverend begins to unravel as he contemplates either wearing an explosive vest to detonate in the church or to simply appear strapped in barbed wire as an imitation on how Christ was tortured before being put to death. It was this theme that served as the underlying strength of the film as it described the despair felt by many American citizens as they watched the world decay around us while lacking any meaningful access to find a political force to fight it.
Without describing it, I was one of the people who did not like the ending. Though the reverend recognized life’s reality of being a frequent choice between hope and despair, you were left with the feeling that there is no better cure for life’s wounds than a passionate kiss.
While I must admit that this conclusion did not offend me, it left me shaking my head as I left the theater.