Hot Take: First Reformed is a dying breed of film. It’s one that provides more questions than answers. It also lacks the broad appeal (read: superheroes) of what usually lands in cinemas but definitely worth the 2 hour commitment.
Writer/director Paul Schrader has an impressive resume. Dating back to 1974, Schrader’s screenwriting highlights include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Mosquito Coast and The Last Temptation of Christ and was the writer and director of American Gigolo and Affliction amongst others. All told, Schrader has a writer and/or director credit on 31 films. While most of his best works have been tied to director Martin Scorsese, Schrader is no slouch on his own. This combined with the fact that A24, the most consistent studio in Hollywood, is the distributor of Schrader’s latest, First Reformed, was a good sign of things to come. In fairness, First Reformed isn’t for everyone. Even with Schrader as the creative talent behind the film and a cast featuring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, a film about a reverend questioning his faith as he silently battles symptoms of an unknown illness has almost not shot at big box office success. Then again, when you make a movie as heavy as this, it’s unlikely the motive behind it is to blow up the box office.
As stated in the last paragraph, First Reformed is a heavy watch. Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller is powerful in the starring role. Toller is a former military chaplain still struggling with the death of his son Joseph who he encouraged to enlist in the military where he lost his life. Toller, working at the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger). Mary is worried about her husband who recently returned from doing environmental activism and wants her to have an abortion. She wants the reverend to speak to Michael who reveals that he does not feel comfortable bringing life into a world doomed due to climate change. After they meet and Toller provides counsel to Michael, Mary discovers a suicide vest in the garage. Before the reverend can confront Michael about it, Michael takes his own life. In addition to this, the reverend is struggling with his own faith as he deals with a debilitating illness that is likely cancer. He also continues to counsel Mary who is struggling with the passing of her husband and has begun exploring Michael’s climate change cause which has furthered his issues with his views on faith.
Hawke’s role in First Reformed is one of the best performances of his career. If the film were released closer to December, he’d have an outside shot at a Best Actor nomination. Unfortunately, betting on the Academy remembering a film that hit theaters in May that barely broke $3 million at the box office is about as likely as seeing a unicorn. Seyfried is also compelling in her supporting role. Both performers benefit from a well written screenplay and a director who takes incredible care with how every scene is shot. First Reformed isn’t light reading though which makes the summer release date even more unusual. However, as a diversion to the rest of the popcorn fare littering theaters, First Reformed is a competent alternative. Down to just 110 screens (from a max of 334), it might be tough to find but if First Reformed is still in your area, it’s worth seeking out. Be warned, it’s going to leave you with more questions than answers.
The idea of a character of faith questioning faith is an intriguing one.
The only climate change you are interested in is what happened to the environment when Thanos completes the Infinity Gauntlet.