Drama / Thriller
Drama / Thriller
Forty-six year old Reverend Ernst Toller is the pastor at the historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York. It is seen as the "tourist" church or the "souvenir shop" (its historical significance partly it being a stop on the underground railroad before the slaves crossed into Canada) by Abundant Life, which owns the church and which operates a modern self-named five thousand seat church overseen by Reverend Joel Jeffers. First Reformed is celebrating its two hundred fiftieth anniversary this year, for which a major event is planned, modest in size only at First Reformed itself although the dignitaries like the governor and mayor will be at attendance there, while the event will be simulcast at Abundant Life. Most of the speech-making will be done by local industrialist Ed Balq, a major benefactor of Abundant Life and who is the major donor for the necessary upgrades at First Reformed to be able to hold the event there, and for the event itself, while Toller's participation will ...
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August 18, 2018 at 04:30 PM
Grim Portrait of a Man in Crisis
Some objectively good movies also make you feel good while watching them. Others crush you with weighty material, penetrating emotions and powerhouse performances. 'First Reformed' falls into the second category.
Legendary writer-director Paul Schrader returns to his past glorious form with this film. Some 40 years after writing 'Taxi Driver', he unleashes another portrait of a man experiencing a deep existential crisis as he sinks further into despair because of what he perceives to be a failing humanity.
Our new Travis Bickle is Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, in an Oscar-worthy performance). Toller runs a small church in New York state called First Reformed, which has a dwindling congregation of merely a dozen. Nearby, First Reformed's parent church, which has a following of thousands, is headed by Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). Toller and Jeffers clash over their ways to best perform the Lord's work. Toller rejects all physical possessions and scoffs at the financial success of the parent church, while Jeffers futilely attempts to convince Toller that wealth and religious commitment are not mutually exclusive.
Toller is not a well man. He struggles to take joy in any aspect of life. His past haunts him, as do the present failures of humanity. His despair becomes increasingly clear with each passing day that he writes in his diary, which was intended to be a form of prayer and offer clarity but instead only serves as a vehicle for him to psychologically self-punish. As his mental health suffers, so does his physical state. He's sick, probably dying, but he guzzles hard liquor daily despite the stomach pain it causes. Perhaps this too is self-punishment.
As Toller struggles to find a purpose for his remaining time on Earth, one appears before him when a pregnant parishioner, Mary (a career-best Amanda Seyfried), asks him to counsel her suicidal husband. Toller agrees, but the conversations don't lead to any relief for either party. Toller believes he finds a purpose, but anyone of sound mind would hardly consider it a Godly cause.
This all builds to a climactic scene that will leave some viewers in breathless awe and others in maddening disbelief. I took the final moments as a welcome relief after a punishing first 105 minutes, but some may see the abrupt pivot in tone as off putting. In any case, it's certainly spiritual trip and one that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
I wanted to like it more
SPOILER: I'm not sure that I understand the praise for this film and regret that my review may be interpreted as a political reaction. I'll applaud a good film whether I hold the beliefs of the maker(s). I think in bullet points so here are my views on the Pros & Cons.
- Solid framing, shots, & set design. From the initial shot of the church to the biking scene, to his minimalist furnishings, to the emptiness of the mega-church, I felt like everything visually (barring sfx) was solid & beautiful
- Premise is promising
Based on the narrative, I'm forced into a few possible explanations for the character's development:
1. Anomalous psychotic break not shown on film
2. Months to years of backstory (this story covers about 8 weeks) left out to explain character's need to grab on to this fanaticism as a logical consequence of his mental state & surroundings.
3. The reverend is a dehumanized object created by writer/director as a Christ figure to suffer for the muddled attempt to tie spirituality, corporate responsibility, social apathy, and environmentalism into a cohesive whole.
I'm leaning toward the latter.
- Incongruity between reverend's journey and supporting plot: The leaps the main character makes in the movie are at odds with the presented plot and character background. I think it is a disservice to those vulnerable to fanatical extremism to represent such an easy and shallow transition into said self annihilation & willingness to destroy others. This is a topic still under examination (NY Times 5/31/18), but this film would suggest that a reasonable model for creating a fanatic is to create a 46 year old, white divorcee who lost a child, attended seminary, runs a small church, & suspect he may have cancer. Add one counseling session with a young, environmental fanatic and boom: suicide bomber. Is this a remotely probable demographic?
- Thrown away opportunities: the underground railroad tie in and "gift shop church" as presented were appendages that missed strong opportunities drive the story
- Shallow spiritual platitudes: This film is reviewed by some as a spiritual / Christian engagement into responsibility for how we treat the earth. There is some support here, but the actual intellectual engagement at a theological level (supposedly this character's driving mentality) are a few obvious scripture quotes and brief exchanges. I have engaged in far deeper conversations with environmental activists on Christian under-pinning for their beliefs than this film even considers. It isn't of substance.
- Corporate blame: The story takes a cliche view of the blame by pointing to corporations and the rich exploiting the environment & maneuvering the government officials. This is part of the story, but it is convenient when I can leave a theater on the global consequences of climate change and not feel an iota of responsibility or need to change. Thank you, for the pat on the back and reinforcement of smug slactivism.
- Hawke's portrayal: he nailed the glassy-eyed, soulless addict. Unfortunately, the character needed to be so much more than this to pull such grand issues together.
Read more IMDb reviews
Religious drama starts out solid, then becomes infuriatingly ludicrous
It is very unusual for a film to aggravate me with its heavy-handed narrative and simple-minded mentality, but this one enraged me more than any other film I've seen in years. To be sure, this film does not immediately embrace its radical ideology. It starts out deliberately, almost at a molasses-like pace but then abruptly turns into something profoundly and alarmingly nonsensical, which is why I'm never going to forget it, but not in a good way.
Director Paul Schrader provides us with the story of Reverend Toller (played with pained dignity by Ethan Hawke), who lost in his son in Iraq and has had to cope with the emotional scars ever since. His marriage is in ruins. His stately old church in upstate New York is an historical landmark but lives in the shadows of the more modern, larger congregation that has greater weight in the local community. Hawke's character gets to know a young couple in his small church, one of whom is a troubled environmental activist.
This raw drama is meant to be about the loss of faith, but its singular problem is the dearth of character development that is required for the extreme turn that the plot takes. The film's descent into lunacy, into over-the-top absurdity is not warranted given how little we connect with Hawke's character. His life has problems, for sure, but his psyche is somewhat inscrutable (despite a voiceover diary, no less) and therefore what follows is inexplicable. His ultimate motives are maddeningly opaque. The ideological transformation lacks a coherent basis and therefore never touches credibility even with its fingertips. The film's shift felt very sudden, and I was shaking my head in the end, wondering how the storyline, for lack of a better word, collapsed. Its promising start felt like years ago when the credits were rolling.
With the right approach and a more subtle, nuanced point of view, this film could have been a classic. Instead, it becomes a cartoonish propaganda piece that will not satisfy an educated audience. Not recommended.