(2018—Director: Paul Schrader)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“How easily they talk about prayer, those who have never really prayed.” — Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke)
Potential spoilers below
Writer-director Paul Schrader has carved out a fair reputation for himself this past half-century of cinema history. Among his nearly two dozen screenplays include four Martin Scorsese-directed pictures between 1976 and 1999, including 1976’s acclaimed Taxi Driver. Schrader has also directed several of his own scripts, including 1980’s American Gigolo (starring Richard Gere), the 1985 biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and 1997’s Affliction (for which James Coburn won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar).
Schrader’s last two decades of work have paled in comparison to his work between the ‘70s and ‘90s. His projects as of late have experienced varying degrees of critical favor and little to no commercial success. First Reformed, Schrader’s latest character study, might return him to both critical and commercial success (having only cost $3.3 million to make), thanks largely to Ethan Hawke’s patient, restrained, and mesmerizing star performance. It is a shame, then, that Schrader’s film had to mirror Hawke’s character so closely, meandering for 113 minutes through several incomplete story scenarios in search of a purpose, all the way to an abrupt and corny ending.
Ask Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) how he feels about his middle age years so far and he would likely reply, “It’s been great,” before his empty grin falters into a somber and distant gaze. A former military chaplain, Toller mourns for his late son, whom he had encouraged to enlist and whose death led to Toller and his wife’s separation. Nowadays, the secretly alcoholic Toller works for the Abundant Life evangelical church as the pastor of First Reformed in upstate Snowbridge, New York. The building’s historical significance and decent tourist draw compensate for its paltry number of regular attendees.
One attendee, the soft-spoken Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), approaches Toller with concern for her environmental activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael has expressed grave reluctance to bring their unborn child into a doomed Earth, courtesy of humanity’s disregard for the environment. Has Rev. Toller found a new calling? Can he balance it with his ordinary duties, especially with—as Head Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Antonio Kyles) keeps reminding him—First Reformed’s 250th anniversary celebration approaching?
The movie’s opening features elegant credits (similar to last year’s Phantom Thread) over the camera’s cautious procession towards the titular church at dawn, followed by Rev. Toller starting his intended year-long journal (conveyed via voiceover). These suggest the beginnings of a torrid downward spiral for Toller’s spiritual and physical well-being. What follows, however, becomes less a pathway to Rev. Toller’s doom and more of an episodic tumble into two less-than-stellar months in Rev. Toller’s ministry. The dips into climate change discussions and whether God can forgive an anti-environment humanity degrade at times into cliched corporate blame and a touch of preachiness.
Yet for as overly serious as First Reformed can get, it does manage to produce a few moments of comedy. When Michael proceeds with his global warming tirade to Rev. Toller, the film shifts at once to Toller’s journaling voiceover, “He went on like that for some time,” causing a handful at my screening to chuckle. More laughs came later in the runtime, after Rev. Toller firmly rebuffs the affections of Esther (Victoria Hill), Abundant Life’s choir director with whom Toller romanced briefly some time after the start of his ministry. (“I despise you…You are a stumbling block.”) The movie then cuts to Toller journaling on how refreshed he felt soon after. The character dynamic of Hill with Hawke echoes that of Barbara Bel Geddes with James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo from 1958.
Ethan Hawke’s lead turn anchors the on-screen proceedings from start to finish. It should not surprise anyone if he factors heavily in discussions for Best Actor contenders in the next awards season. I find it difficult to say likewise for his co-stars. Writer-director Schrader reduces Amanda Seyfried to a blank concerned widow character and has Cedric Kyles just say his lines in a smug and considerate fashion. This instance of a comedian going dramatic pales in comparison to Ed Helms’ quiet yet revelatory supporting turn in Chappaquiddick from a few months back.
For those in the mood to watch Ethan Hawke carry a dour character study, First Reformed is probably the film to watch. Others, this critic included, might prefer something more meaty, flavorful, and purposeful. It would disappoint me greatly if First Reformed ended up attracting all the end-of-2018 awards notices that ought to go to, say, the far-superior You Were Never Really Here (which many continue to regard as a modern-day Taxi Driver and rightfully so).
Paul Schrader, who nears his 72nd birthday (as of this review), might soon lack the ability to command the director’s chair, and these past two decades have not exactly elevated his reputation in that regard. However, I would love for him to cap his long career by devoting himself to penning a few scripts as spectacular as his ones for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. These, then, can fall into the hands of young and robust visionaries to execute them.
I hope First Reformed will not be the best and last Schrader can still contribute to cinema.
(Parental Note: First Reformed has been rated R by the MPAA “for some disturbing violent imagery”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong gory images”, and rated A-III (Adults and older adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “some gore, mature themes, and fleeting scatological references.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.