Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Movie Review: "First Reformed" (2018)

Director: Paul Schrader
Year: 2018
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

As the First Reformed church approaches its 250 year anniversary, the church's preacher Rev. Ernst Toller begins to counsel a distraught environmental extremist. The series of events that follows leads Toller to have a moral crisis as he spirals into an intense state of despair.
"How easily they talk about prayer, those who have never really prayed." (Image Source)
The environment is totally screwed, and nobody cares, and that's including the church because they are backed by the corrupt corporations that pollute the environment anyway. We're just sayin'...probably ain't that far off. This is the problem that plunges Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) into despair in writer/director Paul Schrader's latest film "First Reformed." The story revolves around the 250 year anniversary of the First Reformed church, a scarcely-attended historical site in upstate New York. In addition to juggling the church's reconsecration ceremony, Rev. Toller has been asked to counsel a man who wants his wife to have an abortion because he doesn't believe it is moral to bring a child into this dying world. The events that follow this counseling session, as well as the state of our environment, his ongoing illness, and demons from his past cause Toller to lose hope, become mentally unstable and gravitate towards a political extreme.

It has been well documented that BigJ and I rarely disagree so drastically when reviewing movies. He and I are very like-minded, and as such, we typically have the same read on films. Maybe that's what happens when you've been a couple for 13 years, you start to think similarly, who knows? All we know is "First Reformed" will be one of the few flicks that goes into our "largest point spread hall of fame."
"Such simple pleasures, why do we deny ourselves?" (Image Source)
One man's fall into hopelessness is what "First Reformed" is all about. A myriad of dilemmas leads Toller down his path of sorrow as illness, past regrets, alcoholism, and societal concerns plague his soul and mind day in and day out. The main social issue at the center of the film is global climate change, and BigJ and I both agree that in no way is this message subtle. The film deals with this subject with all the delicacy and precision of a sledgehammer. It drives home the idea that the world is screwed and that nobody is willing to do anything about. This message may lead viewers to despair, much like it did Ernst Toller. When you stop to think about it for a split second, is this really the wrong point of view, especially in our current troubled times? We've only had the same verifiable scientific data drilled into our brains for years, and we've still done jack shit to help our earth, but, we digress. In the various scenes that involve this subject, we see discussions about the church's indifference to global warming and their scriptural justification for such apathy. It also alludes that the real reasons for such disregard are corruption and money. Big polluting businesses donate to the church in exchange for their silence, or at the very least their ambivalence, on the matter. We even get a 'magical mystery tour' dream/trance/trip-like scene where Ernst and Mary (Amanda Seyfried) circumnavigate overhead shots of a globe full of polluted wastelands in one of the films more existential scenes.

All of these things are included to push Ernst Toller's character arc as he changes from a caring reverend to a political extremist. For BigJ, this arc felt too sharp, too sped up, and not fully earned. For me, it merely felt like a bruised, battered, broken man finally snapped. The movie hammers in the notion that the plunge to extremism is quick...well, the script said all along what was happening to Rev. Toller. Toller is a man of the cloth who has religion to put him back together when the pieces start to fall apart, and yet hope seems like a foreign construct as despair takes over his every thought, gradually invading his mind and spirit like the sickness within him. As he has a physical breakdown, he has a spiritual one as well. Though I am not in tune with all of the subtleties of religion, I found this to be a fascinating examination of faith, despair, mercy, activism, expectation, corruption, and avarice.
"A life without despair is a life without hope." (Image Source)
Despite our opposing viewpoints, we both agree that Ethan Hawke offers a tremendous performance as Rev. Toller, one that is full of nuance and emotion. He makes "First Reformed" as successful as it is. Also making this film a near technical masterpiece is Alexander Dynan and his dynamic, dark, interesting cinematography. The story itself is methodically paced as Schrader tries to create a slow-burning narrative that leads to a big payoff. For BigJ, this payoff fell short and didn't feel entirely organic. BigJ also felt that in all of its intentionally ambiguous nature, the ending was a bit of a copout and left him wholly unsatisfied. The ending made him feel like Paul Schrader lacked the conviction to do something truly daring and to take a plunge one way or another. The more I think about the ending, the more I like the vague nature of it. It is not one most casual moviegoers will enjoy, and we know this to be true because we could hear the outrage coming from the ladies who sat next to us as they seethed in their seats as the credits rolled. I say see this film no matter what and venture outside of your comfort zone. BigJ says see it only if you're into arthouse and indie movies.

My Rating: 8/10
BigJ's Rating: 5/10
IMDB's Rating: ~7.7/10
RT Rating: ~96%
Do we recommend this movie: Sure, why not?

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