Film Review: First Reformed

Minister faces a crisis of faith when he counsels the widow of a suicide victim. Ambitious Paul Schrader drama ultimately loses its way.
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An overtly personal movie, First Reformed shows Paul Schrader's debt to what he once wrote about as "transcendental" filmmakers. In examining a troubled minister, the writer and director evokes Dreyer, Ozu and in particular Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. What's surprising is how timely and moving First Reformed can be, despite its intellectual trappings.

Played by an understated Ethan Hawke, Ernst Toller is the pastor of a historic church in upstate New York. Hiding his troubled past behind an impassive demeanor, Toller resists human contact. At night he numbs the pain of his illnesses with alcohol while writing his thoughts longhand in a journal.

As isolated as he is, Toller still lives in the present, worrying about his dwindling congregation, facing the political demands of his superiors and dealing with day-to-day chores like choir practice and group-therapy sessions.

All of life is a test for Toller. He catalogues his desires, dislikes, doubts, poring over the slights and animosities he ignores in public. He recoils from the smothering interests of choir leader Esther (Victoria Hill). He argues against the advice of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better-known as Cedric the Entertainer), head of a much more successful parent church called Abundant Life. And he ignores his health.

Congregant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist so worried about the state of the world that he wants her to get an abortion. Toller is energized debating personal morality with Michael, only to uncover disturbing clues about his plans. Then Toller discovers his body after he commits suicide.

Schrader stages these scenes with uncharacteristic restraint. His characters grapple with fundamental problems with simple words and gestures. Inspired in part by Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, Schrader adopts a severe style, with unadorned interiors framed by cinematographer Alexander Dynan in the classic 1.33 aspect ratio. These techniques help make First Reformed feel like a parable, a story unfolding in a world of different possibilities.

Very few movies deal successfully with questions of belief. Most so-called faith-based dramas use miraculous events—a child rescued, an illness foiled—to instill or renew acceptance of religion. Schrader is aiming for something much more difficult. At its heart First Reformed questions the point, the very usefulness of faith. Does it really save anyone? Does it solve real-world problems? Does it ever help?

Raised a Calvinist, Schrader has doubts, as well as a few glimmers of hope. He also makes some questionable choices. As a writer, he has always had a tendency to reduce people to gargoyles. A therapy patient here is pointlessly argumentative, a donor cruelly unreasonable, workers are sullen and unresponsive. Viewers shouldn't have to be pushed so hard into supporting Toller's point-of-view.

Also, the minister's growing environmental consciousness feels utterly false. How could any functioning adult today, let alone one trained to provide advice, not know about superfunds? Or corporations who bribe away pollution?

"Transcendental" applied to film directors means one thing. Schrader uses it in quite another way during First Reformed's climax, mixing watered-down Flannery O'Connor with dharmic philosophies in ways that almost erase the genuinely affecting dramatic scenes earlier in the story.

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