Faith and Philosophy Feed the Flame of First Reformed

Movie review: First Reformed

Paul Schrader revisits the desperation of Taxi Driver with Ethan Hawke in the role of a priest losing his religion while trying to save a young woman from a sick world.

First Reformed

3.5/5

Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

Directed by: Paul Schrader

Running time: 1 hr 53 minutes

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

First, a biographical footnote: Paul Schrader was brought up Calvinist. Second, First Reformed: It’s the latest film from the writer of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, as well a clear manifestation of an old cross.

Shrader clearly still carries the burden of his upbringing. It’s tattooed across the veiny forearm of just about everything he’s done, from American Gigolo and Affliction to The Canyons, Dominion  and Adam Resurrected. Only this time, he’s using a surgical blade to get under his own skin, and examine the inky scars.

Ethan Hawke acts as the razor-sharp point of inquisition through the character of Toller, a bellwether for the times. Toller is the priest in a small town in Upstate New York. He’s dealing with his own personal turmoil as well as church politics, but he’s a caring and compassionate man who honestly believes in goodness and hope.

It’s why he became a priest. Yet, when he meets a young couple with a compelling moral dilemma, he’s yanked into a very uncomfortable place. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and wants to keep her baby. Yet, her husband, an environmental activist, can’t bear the thought of bringing a child into a world hurtling toward disaster.

Toller bites on the wriggling spiritual bait. He offers up the Bible’s best hits and does his best Job. He believes salvation is possible. Or, at least he thought he believed — and when thinking and true faith start to mingle, moral alchemy happens.

Toller bites on the wriggling spiritual bait. He offers up the Bible’s best hits and does his best Job. He believes salvation is possible. Or, at least he thought he believed — and when thinking and true faith start to mingle, moral alchemy happens.

Hawke is so believable as the questioning cleric, at times it doesn’t feel like a performance as much as an extended personal reflection. Schrader gives the character a journal, allowing us to hear his thoughts as they hit the page. The voice-over is an interesting choice, and one Schrader may use better than any other current dramaturge. Travis Bickle’s inner monologue alone is already part of the popular psyche.

Toller’s internal struggle has the same tone, and Schrader, who is writing and directing this one, uses the same throbbing sonics to give us a sense of hollow desperation. Toller hears the words coming out of his mouth, and they have a tinny sound.

Schrader helps us out by giving us a Clockwork Orange-inspired montage of environmental cataclysm. Then, he sits us down with the local church bigwig, and lets us hear how the diocese doesn’t want to get too political.

‘I don’t think the Lord wants us to destroy His creation…” says Toller. ‘How do you know what the Lord wants?’ comes the reply. ‘This may all be part of some big plan…”

Schrader is so well-schooled in scripture, the screenplay reads like a Socratic argument. Every construct comes under question, and when Toller really pulls himself apart, piece by piece — and fittingly, word by word — he’s completely lost.

Schrader is so well-schooled in scripture, the screenplay reads like a Socratic argument. Every construct comes under question, and when Toller really pulls himself apart, piece by piece — and fittingly, word by word — he’s completely lost.

It’s a very heady movie. There isn’t much to speak of in terms of action. It’s Taxi Driver without the taxi: A long ride inside the mind of a man beginning to see the world around him in a whole new and increasingly hostile way.

Schrader changes out Scorsese’s grimy frames with clean-edged, Calvinist angles and a muted, grey palette. It all feels a little stark and cold. The bruised midwinter skies of Upstate New York only make the chill bigger. Yet, lurking around in these anemic pictures, we can feel something warm and pulsing.

It’s the part Schrader himself seems intent on crushing — and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why — even though he spent the previous hour explaining it all in deeply philosophical terms. He wants to push us into the nihilist abyss; to see what we have done.

Toller’s desire for a reckoning seems deeply connected to Schrader’s body of work. I once asked the filmmaker about punishment, and why so many of his characters are so tortured. “I don’t believe they should be punished…” he said. “What they should be is interesting. There’s nothing worse than a boring character.”

Certainly, there’s no real issue on that score where Toller is concerned. Hawke hands in an Oscar calibre performance in the role, and rides it right to the bitter end without flinching. Seyfried and the rest of the characters feel a little more like writing on a chalkboard: significant ideas simplified, and in one dimension.

For theologians and cinephiles, First Reformed is very much a must-see from an important filmmaker. Schrader says he needs to make films of the moment — if only to understand the times a little better. So this is probably the most articulate response we’ve seen to the current Zeitgeist. Whether you see it as a tragedy or an act of mercy will very much depend on your faith, or perhaps as Schrader may put it, your wilful denial of reality.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, June 10, 2018

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Review: First Reformed

User Rating

3.8 (19 Votes)

Summary

3.5Score

Paul Schrader’s latest is a very heady movie. There isn’t much to speak of in terms of action. It’s Taxi Driver without the taxi: A long ride inside the mind of a man beginning to see the world around him in a whole new and increasingly hostile way. This time, we join Ethan Hawke as a priest trying to save a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) from a sick world. Schrader changes out Scorsese’s grimy frames with clean-edged, Calvinist angles and a muted, grey palette. It all feels a little stark and cold. The bruised midwinter skies of Upstate New York only make the chill bigger. Yet, lurking around in these anemic pictures, we can feel something warm and pulsing -- which Schrader is eager to crush. This is a world without hope, or god. -- Katherine Monk

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