Tuesday, 8 January 2019

First Reformed (2017)

I’ve been wanting to see First Reformed since it premiered last year in Venice but, no matter how much I love Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, Hawke plays a priest, I can’t stand priests, and I’ve been putting this off since its release. I read some positive reviews recently so I finally decided to give it a shot.

The story follows Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the 46-year-old lonely and depressed pastor of a small historical church —the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York— who decides to keep a diary for a year, after which he intends to destroy it. One day, a young woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who is dealing with anger and environmental activist issues. Toller agrees to help him but Michael soon takes his own life.

As expected, the story is a spiritual one as it deals with a priest who questions his own faith and morality. Surprisingly, it is also a political one as it addresses the dangers of political radicalism, extremism and terroristic violence. The problem? As the story unfolds, the political/environmental agenda completely takes over, and the (spiritual) story goes from being very interesting and compelling to quite dull and boring, and its dramatic ending feels disconnected as if the storytelling went off the rails.

The characters, on the other hand, especially Hawke’s, are so complex, you almost forget about the flawed story. Ernst Toller is a man tormented by his tragic and troubled past and who struggles with his present. He is haunted by his past and because of it fails to find joy in any aspect of life. He is a man experiencing a deep existential, spiritual crisis, a man who has lost faith in humanity and struggles to find a purpose for his remaining time on Earth. Ethan Hawke gives an outstanding performance here as the conflicted pastor. He never slips out of character, and he is completely believable in the role as he delivers the despair and fury of the holy man to perfection.

A24
Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, although she isn’t as developed as Toller, also makes for an interesting character as she represents the only remnant of hope in Toller’s life, and Seyfried’s performance is fantastic, easily her best performance since Les Miserable. At last, Cedric the Entertainer gives a strong performance as Reverend Jeffers, the head of the church who clashes with Toller.

Paul Schrader’s direction is pretty solid too. The camera work is quite stunning —most of the film plays out with the camera not moving at all and lingering on the actors’ faces—, the muted, austere colour palette fits the film’s mood very well, and the almost complete absence of a score is a winner —there’s some dark and chilling music by Lustmord and it’s wonderful.

That being said, despite it being a good character study, having great acting and an impressive direction, First Reformed didn’t fully convince me. Overall, it was dull and tedious, and the dream-like/magical/mystical sequence is bizarre and out of place. 

8 comments :

  1. I liked the movie more than you but you liked Amanada way more than me :) I couldn't tell what she was doing and half the movie I was expecting the twist that she is evil :)

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  2. I'm in line with you on this, I liked it right up until that weird dream sequence and then the ending. Those just didn't work for me.

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  3. Sounds dull to be honest but at least the priest isn't a pedophile.

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    1. You're so right about it! I also thought that.

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  4. Having seen some of Paul Schrader's films, this is one I've been eager to see as I heard it's a true return to form following a period of bad films such as that debacle in The Canyons with Lindsay Lohan.

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    1. I guess he's just not for me. I liked Taxi Driver, a lot, but I hated Raging Bull and this was meh.

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