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First Reformed Movie Review

First Reformed (2018) movie poster First Reformed

Theatrical Release: May 18, 2018 / Running Time: 113 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Paul Schrader

Cast: Ethan Hawke (Reverend Ernst Toller), Amanda Seyfried (Mary Mansano), Cedric Kyles (Pastor Jeffers), Victoria Hill (Esther), Philip Ettinger (Michael Mansano), Michael Gaston (Edward Balq)


Martin Scorsese might be the most respected filmmaker working today. Paul Schrader, the man single-handedly credited with the screenplays to four of Scorsese's films including the esteemed Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, does not have the same sterling legacy. It's been nearly twenty years since Schrader and Scorsese last collaborated
(on 1999's Bringing Out the Dead) and in that time, while Scorsese has been churning out one Oscar contender after another, Schrader has mostly worked on the fringes of the industry. After helming a couple of well-received indies at the turn of the millennium (Affliction, Auto Focus), Schrader has made a string of critical failures barely released to theaters (if at all) and notable only for trainwreck casting (Lindsay Lohan, Nicolas Cage).

Now, Schrader gets a shot at redemption as the writer and director of First Reformed, a slow burn thriller that carries the cache not only of playing at Venice and Toronto but of being acquired by A24, the young studio that has quickly established themselves as being a distributor of high quality fare, from Moonlight and Lady Bird to smaller triumphs like The Florida Project and A Ghost Story. First Reformed arrives with critical buzz, carrying a near-perfect approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes on festival reviews.

The film stars Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller, the pastor of the eponymous small Christian church in upstate New York. Toller preaches to a congregation that just barely cracks double digits on a good Sunday, but he takes his task seriously, having assumed the position after a stint as a military chaplain and some family turmoil. One Sunday after service, the reverend is approached by Mary Mansano (Amanda Seyfried), a regular parishioner who is troubled that her doomsdayer husband (Philip Ettinger) wants her to terminate the pregnancy of what would be their first child.

In "First Reformed", Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) counsels troubled parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried).

Though he tries to refer the couple to First Reformed's big, thriving parent church, which is run as a corporation by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), Reverend Toller does speak with Mr. Mansano and listen to his fears of bringing a child into a world of global warming and irreparable damage. The Reverend advises the tormented young activist and writes about the experience in a newly-started diary he intends to keep for a year. The diary grants us much insight into the mind of Reverend Toller, whose standing as a voice of reason gradually erodes as the film progresses.

Toller's small time parish, disparagingly nicknamed the "souvenir shop" for reasons made clear on a strained church tour, is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary with a big ceremony that is being planned by Jeffers' sleek, high-tech parish and predominantly underwritten by one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the deep-pocketed businessman whose corporation also ranks among the nation's biggest polluters.

Toller grows increasingly uneasy, his mind wandering to some of the same dark places that Travis Bickle's did some forty years ago in a much different, crime-riddled New York City. Influenced by the writings of 20th century monk Thomas Merton and nightly indulgences of alcohol, Toller wonders if he isn't meant for something bigger than just preaching God's Word, haunted by the questions raised by the Mansanos and also privately wrestling with an unidentified ailment causing pain and blood in his urine.

Ethan Hawke gives a strong lead performance as the conflicted Reverend Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader's "First Reformed."

Rich, timely, and thought-provoking, First Reformed reacquaints us with the Schrader who collaborated with Scorsese to give us riveting character studies for the ages.
As in Taxi Driver, Schrader gets us to buy into and even sympathize with a mental descent brought on by despair. It's an impressive feat achieved with minimal manipulation and admirable immersion into characters, story, and setting. The film keeps the viewer guessing until the very end, as you fear the inevitability of a climax you cannot make peace with. I suspect the ending chosen, emotionally fulfilling if narratively unresolved, will disappoint and frustrate some of those who have been captivated for the nearly two-hour journey there. That's one reason to explain a below-average 6.2 user rating on IMDb at the same time the film boasts a 96% fresh Tomatometer rating.

But First Reformed is much too full of ideas and intrigue to write off over a polarizing and admittedly underwhelming final scene. It's a film that is certainly good enough to carry the respectable A24 name and one also worthy of accomplished actors of this caliber, who are uniformly excellent.

Hawke has been around in movies so long that it's surprising to hear his character give his age as just 46 and realize the actor was no older than that when delivering the line. Hawke's enduring career is one of the more interesting ones in Hollywood, his mix of independent and mainstream work always stopping short of him being a "star" and household name, yet never bringing him to the crossroads and compromise that have greeted other longtime leading men like Cage and John Cusack. Hawke is terrific here, his mild-mannered, gray-templed man of the cloth providing a portrayal of complexity and compassion. Seyfried is also good in a secondary role you eye with suspicion. Gaston embodies so much so effectively in his limited screentime. And Cedric the Entertainer, who I'm not yet ready to call by his credited/birth name of Cedric Kyles, is a pitch-perfect revelation in what could either be a one-off or the beginning of career reinvention.

The cast benefits from Schrader's steady direction, which makes compelling use of the largely obsolete 1.37:1 aspect ratio (last tastefully employed on the aforementioned A Ghost Story), arresting moments, and a stirring, droning score by Brian Williams. Not everyone will warm to First Reformed, but you owe it yourself to discover if you find this journey as absorbing as I did.

Related Reviews:
Written by Paul Schrader: Taxi Driver The Last Temptation of Christ | Directed by Paul Schrader: Dog Eat Dog
Ethan Hawke: Boyhood Before Midnight Regression The Phenom Predestination Good Kill
Amanda Seyfried: Chloe While We're Young Red Riding Hood Lovelace In Time
Cedric the Entertainer: Barbershop: The Next Cut Why Him? Top Five
Now in Theaters: Tully Avengers: Infinity War | Distributed by A24: A Ghost Story The Florida Project

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Reviewed May 18, 2018.

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