Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is probably his most personal film yet given his upbringing in the Christian community. Ethan Hawke plays Reverand Toller, a Protestant minister who keeps a journal for a year to record his thoughts, as he believes he is losing his faith. Encountering Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband, an intense environmentalist activist, Toller slips further into doubt as he begins to question his religion and its place in the current world both politically and spiritually, creating a film that’s harrowingly thought-provoking and intensely engaging.
Hawke gives a career best performance as the conflicted Toller. He narrates entries into his journal throughout the course of the film, all of which give the audience insight into his emotional turmoil. He is a tortured man with a dark past who struggles to understand the emotions he’s feeling, and in trying desperately to seek answers only seems to slip further into despair and doubt. Hawke is magnetic in his role, and the supporting players like Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles work off of him hauntingly well.
The film’s atmosphere also assists in audience investment. The opening shot of the film, an old black and white church, is ominously captivating, succeeding in drawing the viewer in and leaving them fixated. Pair that up with the deep psychological questions posed onto Toller, as well as the gorgeous cinematography by Alexander Dynan, which makes even the most mundane environments like a forest or a factory seem horrifying, and we have a film that’s visually stunning on top of morbidly compelling.
What keeps this from being a 5/5 review is unfortunately the rather abrupt ending. The film is immensely absorbing and a viscerally powerful character study that also tackles wider subject matters. However, the climax feels like a bit of a cop out. It seems to be going for a dramatic open conclusion, then chooses to opt for the traditional happy ending. Had it committed to the route it seemed to be going down initially, the film could’ve been even more impactful and provocative.
Nevertheless, this shouldn’t dissuade you from First Reformed. This is a spellbindingly acted, beautiful crafted, and eerily nuanced film with complex characters and themes to address. Another masterful piece from Schrader.
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[Calum Cooper – @Calumthefilmguy]