First Reformed, 2018.
Written and Directed by Paul Schrader.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston, Victoria Hill, and Van Hansis.
A former military chaplain is wracked by grief over the death of his son. Mary is a member of his church whose husband, a radical environmentalist, commits suicide, setting the plot in motion.
Hope and despair is the equivalent to the metaphorically persuasive angel and the devil on the shoulders of one of God’s lonely souls, a pastor at the titular First Reformed church. The establishment is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary regardless of the fact that attendance has gone the way of the dodo (among other things like the organ not working and needing replacement parts) and is now more of a small tourist attraction, but it’s still something Toller (Ethan Hawke continuing a string of challenging performances, this time in a highly nuanced and artsy role demanding him to convey a morally and ideologically conflicted religious type hanging on to faith by a thread, battling the sickness inside him threatening to emerge) is passionate about, possibly to the point of obsession considering he now appears to live as a socially distant recluse ever since the death of his son during the Iraq war (something that also strained his marriage to the point of killing it) which he feels partly responsible for as a once patriotic man that influenced the decision.
As a form of meditation, Toller decides to keep a journal for the exact length of one year, which is supposed to be a process to help him maintain his dwindling faith in the face of failing health (he regularly urinates blood) on top of his tragic personal history. The problem, and brilliance to the credit of writer and director Paul Schrader (the masterful Martin Scorsese collaborator here putting together his best project in what feels like forever), is that this attempt at self-healing actually slowly begins to further his own self-destruction.
Not helping the situation is a woman named Mary (an environmental activist played by a stressed and strung-out pregnant Amanda Seyfried putting in some of the best work of her career as well) who asks Toller to speak to her husband who, while shares similar stances, leans on the radical side and is against bringing a child into a world that he believes will become extinct at some point within his offspring’s adulthood; in other words, he wants Mary to get an abortion. What ensues is a tightly scripted back and forth debate (easily one of the best scenes in the film), but the situation drastically grows more concerning when a suicide vest is located in the garage.
Not to give anything away, but the bomb obviously plays a major part in the ending and Toller’s general collapse of sanity and right and wrong, but things do not play out in any predictable way. Sure, it’s a little frustrating going through a second act, that while is definitely filled with moments of charged politics along with an inviting discussion on important topics such as climate change, seems to make audiences wait and wait with slow burn anticipation as to if this suicide vest will be used or not, the ending is astonishingly beautiful and one hell of a fever dream accomplishment that blurs the line between reality and fiction. It also brings out the idea that hope can be found in love, which I believe is something everyone can get behind.
Along the way is a stylized fantasy sequence encapsulating some stunning photography, but it’s unfortunate that there isn’t more artistic experimentation like it. The diary allows for Toller’s narration to feel natural and place us into the mind on the verge of destruction, and the closing moments express the sensation of good and evil representatives beating the crap out of each other inside Toller, but it feels like Paul Schrader doesn’t really get First Reformed firing on all cylinders until the last act. Either way, it’s thoughtfully riveting for some career-best performances. To be fair, the closing shot alone is worth the price of admission.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com