FIRST REFORMED – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 5/9/18
Opens: May 18, 2018

“Sometimes a pastor needs a pastor,” notes Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) by way of advising Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke). And boy, does he ever. While Jeffers heads a huge church, his sermons carried on a TV screen for a vast crowd, Toller is at the helm of a miniscule Dutch Reformed Church built during the mid-18th century. The church has a history, now celebrating its 250th anniversary–which is why Toller keeps his job though he attracts scarcely eight congregants. Toller has psychological and physical problems that lead him toward a reckoning that allows the film to pass from an austere, Ingmar Bergman-esque story to an out-and-out thriller like “Taxi Driver.” With a nod toward Andrei Tartovsky, whose films carry metaphysical tones and a wink toward Robert Bresson, whose minimalism includes a spare soundtrack and all-around minimalism, director Paul Schrader is unconventional enough to throw in some surprises, including one of the most resonant climaxes you’re likely to see this year.

Schrader, whose strict, Calvinist parents did not allow him to see films until he was eighteen, unwraps the story as though a reflection on his own upbringing, entertains a view that actors should not over-emote, that more naturalistic performances would evoke passion in the audience more than a display of firecracker exhibitionism. Think of his “Dying of the Light,” in which Nicolas Cage plays an ill CIA agent who goes rogue to hunt down a terrorist who had tortured him. At first you won’t see a similarity between that work and this one, but wait until you get to the explosive final fifteen minutes!

Schrader’s minimalism is evoked by the paucity of music in the soundtrack and the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, rarely used today and dazzlingly effective in this one. Ethan Hawke, made up to look like the 46-year-old he actually was in the making of the picture, is a troubled man. He drinks, thinking, perhaps, that this is the only pleasure he should allow himself. He is in physical pain urinating, the toilet water turning blood red, but he puts off going to the doctor as though he wants to torture himself. And no wonder. His family has a military tradition. He encouraged his son to volunteer to fight in Iraq, which he considers a morally bankrupt war (duh). The young man’s death weighs heavily on him now, as does the abandonment by his wife shortly thereafter.

He is not the only character with a view of life as a miserable burden to bear. Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist whose wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is troubled that her husband wants her to abort her pregnancy. He delivers a strong monologue to Toller in which he foretells the end of the world, torn asunder not by warfare but by climate change and the global devastation it would bring about. Why bring a child into this world? His wife is not too happy to find a suicide vest, whose existence encourages Toller to search the ‘net for videos of Middle East suicide bombers. Mary is the only person capable of sweeping the cobwebs from Toller, though Esther (Victoria Hill), a parishioner who leads a choir (which sings in beautiful harmony), is resented for her “hovering” around Toller.

Ethan Hawke is most effective in conveying the conflict present in Toller’s own mind, a man who is so racked with guilt, loneliness, alienation and unnecessary austerity that we can believe only one woman can bring him out of his funk. In a different mode, Cedric the Entertainer uses tough love to break through to Toller, urging the pastor to do something in the real world and not to spend all his time in “the garden.” “Ever Jesus went out to the marketplace.”

If you are a fan of stories depicting inner struggles, enjoy wrestling with intellectual conundrums, and relish the work of a very busy Ethan Hawke (who has five movies scheduled in 2018 including a role in a TV series), this is your film. Unsurprisingly you will think of Trump, who gets no mention in the film but whose aversion to thinking of environmental catastrophe (and thinking at all), has a clear bearing here.

Rated R. 113 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – A-