Written & Directed by Paul Schrader
Not all films are made to be “enjoyed”. Not every movie is popcorn fare and quite frankly, that is precisely why I love movies as much as I do. I got into movies originally for the fun, fast-paced, action blockbusters that are nearly universally loved by escapists, but I stayed with my fandom for the depth of the art form. Which is to say, some movies are hard to sit through, but their narratives are so emotionally charged and moving that experiencing them is a uniquely satisfying event completely different from the satisfaction gained from seeing the good guys beat the baddies in an awesome action sequence. First Reformed is not an easy movie to sit through, tackling many heavy themes in its short by powerful runtime. All this begs the question, did I “enjoy” First Reformed? Well, no, not really, but I did think it was a pretty marvelous movie. And yes, there is a difference.
Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the reverend for a very small, very old church in upstate New York called First Reformed. It still exists basically for its historical significance, surviving on the charity of big business and the mega-church down the road, Abundant Life. Reverend Toller, a troubled man, is approached by a parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who asks him to counsel her husband, who is dealing with the depression of reality. In doing so, he strikes up a friendship with Mary, all the while wrestling with questions of faith and self-worth. As his health declines, so too does his mental state, torn by his past and troubled by his future.
Ethan Hawke has easily become one of the most underrated actors of his generation. He has gone about hsi business starring in medium to low exposure roles and has consistently delivered great performances. First Reformed is not different and may be one of his very best. He manages to inhabit a character so convincingly, and often has a knack for picking great roles to sink his teeth into (think Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue). What makes both the film and the performance work so well is the layed script by director Paul Schrader, who is able to delicately balance multiple themes with care and gravitas. Toller is a good man, but though he may be a man of God, he is just as flawed and troubled as the next guy. Schrader does not hold back in revealing the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs of the reverend and in doing so crafts, along with Hawke, a harrowing portrait of a broken man.
I was expecting the heavy themes of the film, but I must admit that I was taken by surprise by the environmental themes of the film. Mary’s husband is troubled by the direction of the environment, and in turn his obsession turns into Toller’s own. I appreciate the exposure of such an issue, but I was also glad it was somewhat sidelined by the overall struggles of Toller, instead of becoming the front and center of the film. Schrader brings this surprising element into the film, but is able to balance it along with all the others issues and blessings present in both Toller and Mary’s lives. Life is damn hard, and this film does a very good job of showing just how real of a struggle this can be, with the struggle of faith at the center of everything Toller is dealing with.
The ending of the film certainly threw me for a loop, and I won’t spoil it for you here. I was deeply affected by the power of the narrative, the power of Hawke’s performance all the way until the end, which moves into a much more abstract direction, one which I still struggle with days after seeing the film. I cannot say for sure whether I liked or disliked the ending, but I also don’t think it spoils all that came before, which is some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen so far this year. First Reformed is not an easy film to “enjoy”, but it is one I can appreciate a great deal for exploring its many themes, and doing it extremely well. I will continue to praise Ethan Hawke for his abilities, and be on the lookout for his next great performance.