‘First Reformed’ Movie Review: Ethan Hawke Gives A Career-Best Performance As A Conflicted Reverend
The world is dying, and you’re not going to find any relief from First Reformed. Maybe, maybe, you can find a little bit of sympathy, or perhaps something vaguely resembling comfort. What this film mostly offers is a reckoning, and if you are able to accept ambiguity for a couple of hours (and also all the time), then you should be able to derive satisfaction from the latest from writer/director Paul Schrader.
Ethan Hawke has become one of American cinema’s most essential actors in the past several years, alternating between auteur-driven work like his collaborations with Richard Linklater and unabashed genre pieces like The Purge and Sinister. Here he combines the two strains seamlessly as Ernst Toller, a reverend at a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. He makes himself available to counsel his flock as much as would be expected in his position, but there is a core of emptiness to this vocation. His religious devotion is in great part a response to the in-combat death of his son, whom he had encouraged to enlist in the military. He faces his greatest challenge when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a very pregnant parishioner, asks him to talk with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who believes it is a resounding wrong to bring a child into a rapidly dying planet.
First Reformed is mainly prosaic at first in its presentation of Reverend Toller and Mary as two adrift souls forging a connection to establish some stability amidst life-altering loss. Eventually, it becomes something stranger, offering a go at transcendent spirituality. A fantasy scene of flying through space makes it clear that sublime beauty can easily lurch into a tale of horror. Reverend Toller’s ailments come at him in all directions, whether eternal or earthbound. His body is twisting in on itself, with colorful discharges that are both hard to look at and hard to look away from. He is further driven asunder by his deteriorating relationships with the pastor (Cedric the Entertainer, here credited by his given name of Cedric Kyles) at First Reformed’s much more highly attended parent church and the choir director (Victoria Hill) who carries a torch for him.
Schrader has a long and varied directorial career, but his best known works are probably his screenplays for Martin Scorsese films, particularly Taxi Driver. There is a fair amount of Travis Bickle in Michael’s misguided push for wholesale revolution. Reverend Toller gradually takes on many of Michael’s characteristics, in a way that calls to mind Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. The subsuming of a revolutionary identity into an apparently moderate one conveys the susceptibility of the human condition. There is comfort to be drawn from this possibility (or probability) of connection, if we are okay with housing the scarier parts of ourselves.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill
Director: Paul Schrader
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Rating: R for Disturbing Bodily Discharges and Intricate Self-Flagellation
Release Date: May 18, 2018 (Limited)