‘First Reformed’ Review: Paul Schrader Delivers a Searing Meditation on Faith and Despair

     May 17, 2018

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Leave it to Paul Schrader to make a movie that examines broken faith and then attempts to make sense of the destruction. His newest movie, First Reformed, is a profound, powerful, and deeply disturbing look at what happens when faith is challenged, broken, and reconstructed with madness and despair. It’s not an easy movie by any stretch, but it’s constantly compelling thanks to Schrader’s tight, fearless screenplay and Ethan Hawke giving an Oscar-worthy lead performance. There are no easy answers in First Reformed, but that’s part of the reason why you won’t be able to shake it.

Reverend Toller (Hawke) oversees the small First Reformed Church, which is headed towards a milestone that no one seems to appreciate beyond a marketing attempt and appreciation of its quaint, colonial Dutch design. Toller resolves to keep a diary for one year to help sort out of his thoughts, but as the year progresses, he finds himself sucked further into despair. He finds himself oddly compelled by a radical environmentalist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), starting to fall for the environmentalist’s pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), and it’s clear that Toller, a former military chaplain, has never really processed the death of his own son, who died in combat in Iraq. This is all compounded by the lack of faith in the bigger, friendlier megachurch, Abundant Life, whose young parishioners see First Reformed as nothing more than a “souvenir shop.” His faith challenged from within and without, Toller starts looking for how to make a serious change in the world at large.

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Image via A24

Schrader is wrestling with some deep, powerful ideas in his movie from the get-go. Michael offers up the idea that if we’re wrecking the world with global warming, it might be a sin to bring a child into an environment that may be ravaged by the time he or she reaches adulthood. The whole movie plays like a reckoning of the 21st century, but never in an easy or glib way. It looks at not only climate change, but also war and how the Church, represented by Abundant Life, is more akin to consumerism than something to nourish the spirit or comfort the downtrodden. It’s a movie that encourages philosophical discussion and forces us to look at the role faith plays in modern life. Through Toller’s eyes, we’re forced to see that it might fall painfully short of what’s needed.

That perspective especially hits home through Hawke’s incredible performance. Hawke plays Toller’s torment as bubbling just beneath the surface. Without any flair or scenery chewing, Hawke gets right to the anguish and despair bubbling beneath the surface of the character. It’s a crucial performance not just because he’s the lead, but because the story takes Toller to some incredibly controversial places and we need to believe that the character would go there. Thanks to Hawke, we’re fully convinced by Toller’s actions even if we don’t agree with his conclusions.

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Image via A24

However, it’s a credit to Schrader’s script and directing (as well as Alexander Dynan’s excellent cinematography) that we’re forced to at least consider the controversial ideas presented. The film has been compared to Taxi Driver (for which Schrader wrote the screenplay) in terms of following a character’s descent into madness in an insane world, but First Reformed feels like the premise has been updated and refined for the 21st century. That’s not to say First Reformed is better than Taxi Driver, but rather that they have a common DNA moving towards separate goals. First Reformed keeps its attention focused squarely on the role of faith in the 21st century. From there, Schrader is free to explore the purpose of certainty, anxiety, and the natural inclination of humanity.

I saw First Rerformed weeks ago, and it’s a movie I still haven’t been able to shake. Whether you consider yourself a person of faith or not, it’s a movie that will burrow its way into your soul and force you to reckon with the modern world in a way that will make you uncomfortable yet rewarded. It’s not an easy movie, and its darkness can sometimes be overwhelming, but there’s beauty in the struggle even if First Reformed will leave you shaken.

Rating: A-

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