First Reformed (2018) Film Review from the 6th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, a movie directed by Paul Schrader, starring Ethan Hake, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric the Entertainer.
Father Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a former military chaplain who presides over one of the oldest chapels in the United States, a small Dutch Colonial parish. He is a grieving, divorced priest whose son has recently died in combat in Iraq. The film opens with a young woman that is a member of his church, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asking Toller to come to her house and speak with her husband.
When Toller arrives, he learns that her husband, Roger, is a radical environmentalist, who has lost all hope for the planet. He is overcome with depression, and wants Mary to abort their child, as he does not want it to be born into a world that he believes is on the precipice of collapse. Toller does his best to offer advice to the young man, but it is not enough. Roger commits suicide days later, and with Toller feeling guilty for not being able to save him, the disease of depression begins to inflict itself onto Toller.
We see that Toller is no longer taking care of himself. He drinks to excess, refuses to see doctors for check-ups, and eventually begins to experiment with self-flagellation. Others try to help him, including a couple of his contemporaries who run the local mega-church Abundant Life Ministries. The dichotomy between the two churches, tradition versus modernity, biblical versus political, limitation versus excess, is an apt metaphor for where the self-divided Toller is trapped in his mind.
Paul Schrader has an obsession in his films exploring men that are isolated and on a self-destructive path. Indeed, it is a disease that Ernst Toller is afflicted with. It is the disease of depression and ultimately self-destruction. Much like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (which Schrader wrote), Toller sees the world crumbling around him, and loses hope. Stylistically, Schrader gives us an art-house slow-burning thriller, with extended shots, minimal music, and dialogue-heavy sequences. To me, it felt to be heavily influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, with slow tracking shots, and surreal images.
First Reformed has one of Ethan Hawkes best performances. It is subtle, inward looking, and full of both optimism and grief. Amanda Seyfriend also delivers a rounded performance as Mary. She represents the optimism, and hope that is left in the world, and conveys that perfectly. Cedric the Entertainer is also good here, playing against type as the mega-church reverend. I felt that the husband Roger (Van Hansis) as the radical environmentalist was a little over-acted. That may just be his radicalism coming through in the dialogue, which at times feels preachy and over-the-top.
Overall, First Reformed is a great exploration of existentialism, faith, modernity, self-righteous activism, and depression. Schrader has created a truly “American film” that shows us a man divided unto himself, falling prey to extremism. Toller sums up his dilemma in one of his sermons, saying “the test of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”.
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