First Reformed – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke, Cedric the Entertainer
Set in up-state New York, First Reformed is the bleak but totally gripping tale of Reverend Toller, a pastor in a small, almost deserted parish, struggling with his faith and consumed with guilt over the death of his son. His church is the oldest in the state but has now become purely a tourist attraction where people buy souvenirs or school children come to hear of the church’s history as a place of refuge for fleeing slaves in the antebellum era.
When one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), approaches him and asks him to speak to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger) who is having doubts about his impending fatherhood, Toller (a magnificent performance by Ethan Hawke) is forced to examine his own beliefs. Michael has been involved with radical environmentalist movements and he is worried about bringing a child into a world which he sees as fractured and doomed. Though Toller tries hard to convince Michael of the value and sanctity of life, it is obvious that Michael’s arguments give him pause for thought. This is reinforced by his meetings with his superior, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) whose mega church, Abundant Life, is the epitome of the venal, capitalistic society Michael has spent his life fighting.
Like the country priest in Georges Bernanos’s classic novel, Toller’s inner turmoil is reflected in the crippling stomach pains he suffers, which he tries to ignore in an alcoholic haze. Forced to deal with the trivia of organising an event to celebrate the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of his church, Toller reaches his breaking point, and decides that only an extreme act will change the status quo.
Director, Paul Schrader’s film is starkly shot and eerily atmospheric. This is a film with a message and, at times, as in the surreal sequence when Toller and Mary’s out of body tour of the wastelands we have created in our world, it is perhaps too blatant, but overall, it is a remarkable film and Hawke’s performance is unforgettable. The ending is unexpected….and strange. One of the best films you are likely to see this year.