Movie Reviews

First Reformed – A Powerful Character Study

We now have a front runner for Best Actor.

Synopsis: Reverend Ernst Toller is a solitary, middle-aged parish pastor at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, the church is now a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock. When a pregnant parishioner asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of grandiose violence. (a24)

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric Kyles

Writer: Paul Schrader

Director: Paul Schrader

Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)

Running Time: 113mins

Trailer: 

Good things come to those who wait when it comes to film, usually. This film is yet another example of this (literally for me if you follow me on social media) so obviously some will find it too slow. The story served as yet another somber character study about a middle-aged reverend named Ernst Toller (Hawke) and his growing disillusion with his religion and with life itself. Seeing Toller’s growing disillusion over time was compelling to watch but it is definitely a slow burn although some may find him too subdued.

A backstory for Toller was sort of hinted at and would play a role, however, things started to change dramatically for him after being approached by a pregnant parishioner named Mary (Seyfried) about counseling her radical environmentalist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Toller began to strike a relationship with Mary but she and Michael felt more like plot devices than actual characters. Their subplots did not fit together as well as they could have as Mary served as more of a distraction than anything else. Ultimately, they helped to open his eyes to the world changing around him which in turn caused him to start questioning the beliefs he once held dear. 

During this journey, the film touched on some heavy themes dealing with ethics and morality when it came to religion and climate change. While the arguments made here were plentiful and heavy-handed, they weren’t necessarily new or particularly deep. However, it was still easy to relate to Toller’s many frustrations despite him being in a highly vulnerable and suggestible state. His internal conflict and subsequent downward spiral stemming from his loss of faith was the best part of the film although the film could have gone further with it. Unfortunately his story had to share time with Mary’s.

The look and tone of the film was in line with its heavy themes. It was beautiful to look at, featuring a somber look throughout and the use of a stationary camera and a different aspect ratio allowed us to focus on Toller’s dwindling psyche by creating a sense of claustrophobia. The subtle score followed suit and was equally as haunting. There were a few odd moments in the film such as a dream-like sequence that sticks out and the abrupt ending may leave some disappointed.

This film would not have worked if not for Hawke’s best performance yet. He was simply captivating to watch while delivering a layered yet emotionally powerful performance as Toller, a man with plenty of inner turmoil who finds strength from his beliefs that he once held dear. His loss of faith and uncertainty from the challenging of these beliefs felt genuine and was compelling to watch as the walls came crashing in and we waited for him to self-destruct. Seyfried was okay as Mary, however, she had no chemistry with Hawke. Hawke and Cedric Kyles (or Cedric the Entertainer as he is commonly known) who was solid as Jeffers, the pastor of a nearby super-church, had great chemistry which made their scenes fun to watch.

Overall, this was an excellent drama that may be too slow for some with a very topical, albeit forced, message, framed by a powerful story about the loss of faith brought home by a strong screenplay and a career performance from Ethan Hawke that will both surely be recognized once awards season rolls in.

Score: 9.5/10

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