First Reformed (2018)
Critic Consensus: Brought to life by delicate work from writer-director Paul Schrader and elevated by a standout performance by Ethan Hawke, First Reformed takes a sensitive and suspenseful look at weighty themes.
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Critic Reviews for First Reformed
The latest film from pugnacious director/writer Paul Schrader is as austere and revelatory as a church confessional...It's a bleak portrait of a man in the midst of a spiritual breakdown that is only slightly undone by its rather unsatisfying conclusion.
Ultimately its sheer archness reveals Paul Schrader as a gifted and deeply persuasive evangelist of the transcendental style - if not quite a canon saint.
"First Reformed" takes some wild, unexpected and uncomfortable turns in its final act that will surely shock some, anger others and disturb just about everyone. For Schrader, it shows that he's still got it. Welcome back.
"First Reformed" is a miracle in its own regard, the rare type of film that leaves us with questions left to answer and for many, a desire to dig into it deeper through a second viewing.
Audience Reviews for First Reformed
Whether one knows they know his work or not, most who pay attention in some capacity to the film world are usually influenced by or at least familiar with the work of writer/director Paul Schrader. The writer of Scorsese classics such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as well as being the director of American Gigolo and Auto Focus, Schrader has made a career out of analyzing the psyches of tortured male souls and their having to grapple with the varied struggles and conflicts their environment and/or time in history dictated them to deal with. In First Reformed, the writer/director is very much speaking to the time in which the film has been made as this is a story of a man full of anxieties and uncertainties despite his outward facade of peace and a certain serene stillness that only such measured priests can uphold. Being the sometimes cocky, but mostly guilt-ridden Catholic that I am I wrongfully assumed that First Reformed was about a Catholic priest coming to terms with the quarrels his mind could no longer ignore and facing this crisis of faith with what the movie could only determine to surprise us with, but in fact First Reformed does not care to follow such a repeated quandary, but is instead the tale of a man who was beaten down by life long before he decided to make the church his one and only true love as Ethan Hawke portrays Reverend Toller, a man who found something of a lucky break in being appointed the priest for a small congregation in upstate New York whose building is now more of a tourist attraction than a place of worship. What this less imposing set of expectations doesn't change though, is that of the DNA of Christianity and how these inherent leanings impose themselves on the psychology of those that are the truest of believers: the ones that feel the most conflict over the many contradictory if not often well-intentioned teachings of the faith. Toller is a man who sees himself as something of a courier for Christ despite constantly questioning his worthiness of such a status. As Toller is in a spiral, as he is literally and metaphorically dying on the inside, he comes to a path that many a Christians seem to find a paradoxical peace in: their own sacrifices. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, so why am I excused from such an act? To suffer means to earn salvation is what then becomes the mentality once becoming so engrossed in the religion, but as Toller at one point poses, "Who can know the mind of God?" he at another derives what is necessary to please God in his own and from this perspective, twisted way, thus painting the broad themes of contradiction and discountedness that inform First Reformed.
With a formal rigor that reflects the protagonist's internal struggle and the austere life he chose to lead, Schrader's film reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, in which a Christian priest also had his faith shaken by despair - a despair so intense we can feel it across the screen.
Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that's because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that's unexpected but that doesn't make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films. n First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man's stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice. Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn't own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He's friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he'll come around to her. She's a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller's small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the "gift shop church" for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It's like he's trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It's around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church. I'll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this "new him" has come from the sins of "old him." I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That's not really First Reformed at all. First off, it's the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller's simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man's role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you're still invested by then, you'll be along for the rest of the film. However, it's not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God's kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He's going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We're expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader's history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn't happen. I'll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It's setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader's slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We're prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader's ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader's movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie. First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It's an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It's a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It's his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There's really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it's far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It's not death that provides meaning but life, it's not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand. Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they've been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It's enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan "erotic thriller" The Canyons. These are two movies that aren't exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed. Nate's Grades: First Reformed: A-
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