[Film Review] First Reformed (2017)

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Title: First Reformed
Year: 2017
Country: USA, UK, Australia
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Paul Schrader
Music: Brian Williams
Cinematography: Alexander Dynan
Cast:
Ethan Hawke
Amanda Seyfried
Cedric the Entertainer
Victoria Hill
Philip Ettinger
Michael Gaston
Bill Hoag
Rating: 7.1/10

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Allegedly once (jokingly?) lamenting that he will only be remembered by posterity as “the writer of TAXI DRIVER (1976)”, Paul Schrader makes a somewhat unanticipated return to form as a director in his septuagenarian years with FIRST REFORMED, a stimulating drama about a Protestant pastor Ernest Toller (Hawke), whose worldview takes a drastic volte-face and a world-weary fatalism slowly seeps into his mindset after unexpected happenstances and dismal discovery.

Presiding the First Reformed church in Snowbridge, New York, with its 250th anniversary ceremony just around the corner, Reverend Toller is approached by votary Mary Mansana (Seyfried) to counsel her husband Michael (Ettinger), who is a militant environmentalist shrouded in despair by the deteriorating status quo that little has been done to stop the pandemic climate change, and has no willing to bring their in-utero child into our world. Toller’s tokenistic intervention doesn’t work out, although he reveals his tragic loss of a son in the Iraq War, soon Michael takes his own life, but his passing inadvertently plants the seed of Toller’s woke awareness that questions his own faith.

Shot in a rigid 4:3 composition in a customary slow pace, FIRST REFORMED evokes the narrative poise and solemn aesthetics of Pawel Pawlikowski’s monochromatic IDA (2013), prominently, the austere space in Toller’s abode counterpoints a more modern-looking megachurch that reeks of temporal contamination. Although nothing spiritually groundbreaking is floated, hinges heavily on Toller’s self-introspecting voice-over and the content he writes in his diary experiment, writing down and revising his pensée for a whole year before burning it, Schrader’s script eloquently keeps Toller’s inner fluctuation heartfelt, also banking on a conscientiously devoted Ethan Hawke, who graciously exhibits Toller’s warts-and-all personality to stunning wonderment, humility, conflict and weakness, all in one piece, with lucidity and striking commitment.

Schrader even goes out on a limb in one Malickian stroke when Mary and Toller experience their out-of-body levitation over our scorched earth and damaged land, further tweaks Toller’s role into the shoes of a deceased Michael, cottoning to a sensitive yet affable Mary and resolves to continue Michael’s unfinished business by toying with his suicide vest while an inauspicious ambient score is humming resonantly in the background.

As Schrader is lauded more as a shrewd screenwriter than a distinguished director, it is uncharacteristic to senses that the cop-out of a finale is much owing to his lack of inspiration in the story than his craftsmanship behind the camera, everything before that final scene has been expeditiously and enthrallingly geared up to an impending revelation that would give the film its trump card (not to mention a benumbing hosanna belted out by an excellent Victoria Hill, as the short-shrift receiver Esther), but to soil a hitherto well-preserved, rare chastity with a secular canoodling, to shake our wrong-footed clergyman out of his disillusion, is a less tactical workaround to round off Schrader’s quasi-magnificent vetting of religious crisis in the 21st century.

referential entries: Schrader’s THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS (1990, 7.2/10); Pawel Pawlikowski’s IDA (2013, 7.3/10).

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