FILM REVIEW: FIRST REFORMED
I would like to start this review with what I call an “Initial Emotional Reaction” (IER). My IER of FIRST REFORMED, written and directed by Paul Schrader (RAGING BULL, DOG EAT DOG, TAXI DRIVER), was dread. Dread mixed with a touch of hope, if that’s even possible. Dread for humanity as a whole if we do not get some of our most devolved aspects of our human conditions under control. Hope that there will always be a savior-type to rise up and protect us all. Hope that as a society, we are in fact the loving and compassionate beings we so often promote ourselves as being. Last but not least, dread that when all is said and done our self-promoting egos will be proven wrong.
FIRST REFORMED is a playground of darkness and delicious depravity! (That should be taken as a high complement). What more should we expect from the mind and meticulous hands who brought us TAXI DRIVER and AFFLICTION, both of which pair slow-burn intensity and raw emotion with an actor who was born to play within the skin of the main character of these stories.
For this story that star is Ethan Hawke who, in my humble opinion, is doing some of his best work and role selection to date. Hawke plays Toller, a former military chaplain dealing with his crumbling marriage and the post traumatic stress from the death of his son in combat while following in his footsteps.
Toller’s internal struggles increase when Mary (played equally well by Amanda Seyfried), one of his flock, asks for his help in dealing with her husbands radical views on global warming and climate change.
When confronted by Mary’s husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), and his views about bring a child into this damaged world, Toller tries to give sage advice. Advice that Toller himself is uncertain will make any difference. That uncertainty is soon satiated when Michael sets a isolated meeting with Toller in a public park, where upon arriving Toller finds Michael deceased due to a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the face.
Like the current turmoil our planet is struggling to balance itself against, such as the continued bombardment of pollution from the industrial revolution, Toller works against the knowledge of his own sickness, lung cancer, to be able to help Mary.
Soon Toller’s dire prognosis and his growing sympathy with Michael’s radical views on pollution begin to put a strain on the financiers of his modest church’s 250 year anniversary event for which he has been tasked to produce. The planning becomes even more cumbersome when it is revealed that the money is coming from a top pollution producer.
Like TAXI DRIVER, FIRST REFORMED uses similar tones and writing tropes to shine a light on egregious human conditions that if left unchecked can produce horrible and irreparable outcomes. Similar to TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle, Toller decides to take a drastic counter action to said egregious acts perpetrated by those within his own Church community.
All and all I really enjoyed this film. From it’s sparse-on-purpose set design and wardrobe, to the steady and deliberate smoothness of the camera work, this is a well crafted film. If pressed to find an issue with the film, I would have to say that the ending of the film was a bit of a let down. It seemed to be a safe and less controversial way to close this story. I was hoping for an exclamation mark, and was given an ellipsis.
“FIRST REFORMED is a playground of darkness and delicious depravity!”
3 Tombstones out of 5