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First Reformed Blu-ray + Digital 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 Mensana), Cedric Antonio Kyles (Pastor Jeffers), Victoria Hill (Esther), Philip Ettinger (Michael Mensana), Michael Gaston (Edward Balq)

Buy First Reformed from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD DVD Instant Video

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 Mensana (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.

Ethan Hawke plays the tormented Reverend Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader's acclaimed "First Reformed."

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. Mensana 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 Mensanas and also privately wrestling with an unidentified ailment causing pain and blood in his urine.

Pregnant parishioner Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried) brings her concerns to Reverned  Toller (Ethan Hawke), who initially tries to refer her elsewhere.

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 lukewarm 7.1 user rating on IMDb at the same time the film boasts a 93% 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 1.33:1 aspect ratio (last tastefully employed on the aforementioned A Ghost Story), arresting moments, and a stirring, droning score by Lustmord (a.k.a. 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.

Because it was May, no one gave much thought to First Reformed's awards prospects when it opened, despite the rave reviews it drew. Even prognosticators playing the long game don't seriously proclaim something a contender until the end of summer festivals. And yet, as the year draws to a close, this film has remained in the awards conversation particularly in two areas, best original screenplay and Hawke for Best Lead Actor. My impression half a year ago was that this was too small and different to contend for anything but Independent Spirit Awards (where it drew five nominations last month). But critics organizations, as big as the Gotham Awards and National Board of Review thus far, have continued to single out the film. With the American Film Institute announcing their top ten on Tuesday and the Golden Globe nominees being named on Thursday, this week should give us a clearer idea of whether First Reformed actually has a shot at being excerpted and discussed on one of the biggest network television events of the year.

Whether or not it does, you can and should check out the film in Lionsgate's recent Blu-ray + Digital release reviewed here.

First Reformed: Blu-ray + Digital HD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: August 21, 2018
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as DVD ($19.98 SRP) and on Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

As stated above, First Reformed employs the long out-of-favor 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There is much craft on display beyond that anachronistic choice, all of which is easy to appreciate in Lionsgate's sterling Blu-ray presentation. The sharp, crisp imagery of the narrow, often static compositions are complemented by a basic yet tasteful 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix which catches your attention in the rare instances when it expands.

Paul Schrader is seen directing Ethan Hawke in "Discernment: Contemplating 'First Reformed.'" Teenaged choir members briefly share the screen with Ethan Hawke on the First Reformed Blu-ray menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Extras begin with an audio commentary by writer-director Paul Schrader. Sounding as perpetually indigested as present-day Nick Nolte, Schrader isn't the easiest person to spend nearly two hours listening to, but his remarks are consistently interesting and revealing. He starts by citing the films that he borrowed from and proceeds to point out the ways in which he establishes a distinctly slow pace. Other highlights include using Amanda Seyfried's real life pregnancy as leverage with financers, establishing a rule of no camera movement (and occasionally breaking it for effect), wanting to shoot in black and white, avoiding the use of score as much as possible
(and using "soundscape" instead), paying $500 for the church choir to sing a Neil Young environmental song, the nature of most faith-based movies (which he considers just as conventional and manipulative as most non-spiritual movies), and, of course, the different interpretations of the ending you might have. As someone who's been around forever but still struggles to find financing, Schrader has a unique perspective and is clearly quite knowledgeable about cinema and other subjects. First Reformed is one of the most intriguing and unconventional films of the year, which in turn makes this commentary one of the most worthwhile of the year.

On the video side, we get "Discernment: Contemplating First Reformed" (15:43). With behind-the-scenes footage and more thoughtful than usual interviews, the making-of featurette details the project, from its influences and origins to its casting (Hawke says he's been preparing his entire life to play a priest) and filming. It's a solid companion to the film.

Finally, Trailers holds no previews for First Reformed, instead replaying the disc-opening trailers for Hereditary, Under the Silver Lake, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Backstabbing for Beginners, and Good Time.

With a bit of Lustmord's soul-stirring score looped, the menu plays film clips on the left side of the screen while the right remains fixed on a narrow adaptation of the cover art.

The digital copy insert joins the plain blue disc inside the slipcovered eco-friendly keepcase.

Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) and Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried) take a "Magic Mystery Tour" in Paul Schrader's "First Reformed."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You can question First Reformed's mass appeal, but not its instincts as this dark, timely, soulful drama sweeps you up in its absorbing world. Whether or not Ethan Hawke's outstanding performance and Paul Schrader's screenplay are able to break through to major awards recognition, you should undoubtedly see this film. Lionsgate's Blu-ray satisfies with its fine feature presentation and two substantial bonus features.

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Related Reviews:
New to Disc: Juliet, Naked You Were Never Really Here Mandy The Last Movie Star
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

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Reviewed December 27, 2018.



Text copyright 2018 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2018 A24, Killer Films, Omeira Studio Partners, Fibonacci Films, Arclight Films International, Big Indie Pictures, and Lionsgate.
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