REVIEW: First Reformed (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster – A24

The following is a review of First Reformed — Directed by Paul Schrader.

There aren’t many screenwriters as iconic as Paul Schrader, who has written such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. With his latest directorial effort, First Reformed, he has joined forces with Ethan Hawke, the critical favorite in the film’s leading role, to dissect despair and religious responsibilities with another trademark-Schrader ‘man in a room’ film.

In Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor of a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed Church, which is now more a tourist attraction than a religious building. But, in spite of the unimpressive regular turnout, a young couple is in need of his assistance. A young woman (played by Amanda Seyfried) informs Toller that her husband, Michael (played by Philip Ettinger), is in need of guidance.

Michael is an environmentalist obsessed with the idea that Earth is beyond saving, and he does not want to bring a child into the world when he knows that it will become uninhabitable. Under the wife’s instructions, Toller plans to counsel Michael who, as it turns out, has terrible plans for the future, but, sooner rather than later, Toller starts to become just as obsessed with the environment as Michael is.

First Reformed is a film about despair and loss of spirituality, and, at the center of the film, is a character in a crisis of faith. Toller, a Reverend meant to embody all that is holy and warm about religion and God’s love, is pulled apart by earthly phenomena, complexities, and disorders with no love to heal his many wounds. How does a man that has chosen to guide the weak towards the love of all that is holy do his job, if he cannot speak to, understand, or hear God’s voice? Lonely, weak, and full of despair, Toller wrestles with existential issues that may ultimately undo him.

There is a line of dialogue in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset — one of my favorite films (and probably my favorite Ethan Hawke film) — when Hawke’s character ‘Jesse’ says that: “I feel like if somebody were to touch me, you know, I would dissolve into molecules.” Hawke is brilliant in Before Sunset — in all of the Before-films, really — but I remember thinking, as I was watching First Reformed, that I had never before seen him show that feeling in a performance more clearly than he does here.

Hawke looks and feels broken from the first moment he appears on screen, and he only feels whole once or twice in the picture. There are scenes of hurried exasperation, as well as moments that are clearly deeply challenging for the Reverend, who you feel for and pity more often than not. In what will likely be remembered as one of Hawke’s greatest performances on screen, he conjures up deep emotion even in the plainest settings before Schrader once or twice opens the floodgates for wild hallucinatory moments of love.

The one thing about this film that audiences absolutely will wrestle with is the ending. Schrader leaves us with an image — a moment — that can be interpreted any number of ways. It is what I call a Hail Mary-moment. I wrestled with it as well, but, having given it a few days, I think I have a personal understanding of the moment. I will say that I understand anyone who may be frustrated with it, but, to me, the ambiguous and somewhat frustrating ending did not make it any less of a masterpiece.

I saw First Reformed at the end of September. I have seen many films this year, and yet this is the first time I’ve been speechless at the end of a film from 2018. That, in itself, says a lot. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a stunning masterpiece about an overwhelming crisis of faith with a conclusion that quite literally includes a true Hail Mary-moment in all its unfathomable glory.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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