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First Reformed

“the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land”

[Robert Lowell]

Picking up where Aronofsky’s Noah left off, Paul Schrader (writer/director) builds a film hinged on the advocacy of climate change, seeming Christian radicalism, and mega church bedding with energy producers undermining our environmental survival. All themes Hollywood wants to promote and the fact that critics rushed to take their place in line at the sound of Schrader’s altar call is no wonder. First Reformed is the first film in 2018 that fully embodies what we mean by “review inflation” in favor of poorly written films that endorse the political ideology of Hollywood (see ABOUT – Ocean’s 8 is looking to take that coveted silver medal). And yet, the film takes cinematic chances, provoking the audience to think instead of easing into their usual amusement stupor. For that, we think people should at least see it. As Brian Tallerico puts it: “It’s the kind of work of art that seems like it could inspire fantastic conversation. We need more movies like it.”

First Reformed tells the story of a dying minister, Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, and a dying model for Christianity kept on life support by nieghboring church center, Abundant Life, with its thousand room seating and business model pollution called the modern-day mega church that peddles in fun over substance. (Not unlike what Hollywood has become: “we are the children of Lucas, not Coppola“). Hawke’s church exists mainly to entertain tourists, “a landmark of a bygone age of activism and justice,” instrumental in the Underground Railroad system that helped escaped slaves fleeing their masters. (An important theme about the role of the church today in racial reconciliation.)

Hawke, “grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt,” assures us that he has not lost his faith, but his commitments to the what remain sinister and convoluted. The journal he begins is an exercise in deliberation; edging us closer to a moment of grand unfolding. The correlation to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” should not be missed: “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.

Hawke finds himself in the midst of a moral dilemma with the husband (Philip Ettinger) of one of his congregants (Amanda Seyfried) who thinks his wife should abort the child because the future looks hopeless (caused in no small measure by climate change). Powerful ideas are addressed involving our social structures ability to withstand future disturbances and the struggle for men of faith to nurture the confluence between hope and uncertainty. (This conversation isn’t as brilliant as McQueen’s in Hunger, but I appreciate the reference from Ann Hornaday because it was a scene worth a cross-comparison.)

A single incident seemingly triggers a dormant devolution of Hawke, moving towards that grand unfolding and yet remaining open to a return by the air of intimacy. Whether his tortuous spiritual journey through debasement and self-deception” (A.O. Scott) could realistically be undone by the throes of another is plausible, but Seyfried’s insufficiently developed character will require us to give the writing a pass if the idea is to be believed.

This was a difficult movie to judge given my fastidious system because it fluctuated incessantly between the good and the bad. I will separate the two and do what I can to engaged with the exceeding number of reviews, almost unanimously in praise of First Reformed (currently at 98% w/ 115 review).

THE GOOD

First Reformed is a film that forces a principled critic to hold his ground because there was a sufficiency of compelling moments and brilliantly shot scenes to impress. The brooding soul of the Ethan Hawke’s emptiness listens to the echo chambers of an empty church (beautifully shot during the opening credits), a dying tradition while the updated barns of Abundant Life sing the songs of profit and man-made rejuvenation. Schrader’s desire to engage with the political dynamics of today’s most pressing issues is adamant and worthwhile, but without a second opinion to weather the tide of his enthusiasm, First Reformed became a poster child for Al Gore. Critics are weirdly avoiding explicitly mentioning this running theme in their critique (choosing phrases like “environmental extremist” instead), but are clearly affected by its presence. Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter), one of the few brave dissenters, writes:

The movie’s concerns are obvious, not subtle, and while intellectual energy abounds, laying in subtext, building underlying tension physical and creating visual dynamism are not Schrader’s strong suits. 

A powerful performance from Hawke as far as his own career goes, although his performance in Born to be Blue as Chet Baker was comparable. His demons fail to manifest in the dark pitch that Matthew McConaughey’s in True Detective or Daniel Day Lewis’ in There Will Be Blood produced. His own radicalism confusing. A movie like this needed to run much longer (~150 min) for the intended effect to rise to the surface with  intelligible buoyancy. A slower progression in the vein of Raging Bull would have done wonders for the film.

Hawke’s interaction with Seyfried’s husband had true moments of brilliance capturing the minister of hope facing the daunting task of a world surrounded by doubt. That was an opportunity missed for a few more sessions to develop Hawke’s self-deception and psychological indoctrination that would plausible lead him to his mindless endgame.

One scenes with Seyfried (who was shamefully “underserved by the script” because she could have added layers to the story) was brilliant where the two gets dispossessed and relocated unto the natural canvas of the world, unfortunately diminished by the underlying advocacy goals. Kyle Smith (the few conservative critics I admire) has this keen insight:

Toller’s friendship with Mary clarifies the stakes for him: life or annihilation. Remaining with his point of view throughout makes us understand why his outlook has turned bitter, but Schrader is wise enough also to illuminate his error: No man can presume to know the mind of God. Much wayward, destructive, and ultimately anti-human thinking begins here, and the relentless advance of secularism among previously Christian communities has much to do with it. Toller illustrates how wavering confidence in Christianity, with its inherent modesty and deference to the unknowable, can pave the way for something more arrogant and darker.

The sound mixing was effective: erupting ex nihilo into a Mica Levi-esque (Under the Skin) quality of being. (I was asking myself half-way through the film as to whether the score played a single note and then finding myself in the second half in the throes of a perpetual orchestra.)

Finally, the idea of the body decay as a metaphor for worldly disarray is an immensely powerful idea for filmmakers and now we have two films (the other: Annihilation) that strike powerfully at the note of this analogy.

THE BAD

That said: the absurdity and the vacuous foundational writing for Ethan Hawke’s eventual undoing is extremely difficult to overlook. Certainly what you can expect from the author of The Last Temptation of Christ. Someone who is well acquainted with The Bible will find some of the dialogue daft and unintelligible. It was incomparable with the rich infusion of fiction horror and nihilistic existentialism that we saw in True Detective (Season 1) that played wonderfully with the texture of religion and evil.

Notwithstanding the predictable outcome, the minister on an island with an alcohol dependency, running clock malignancy, and Thomas Merton’s theology could have been developed better. All tantalizing themes left largely unexplored by the writing. Plenty of lost opportunity to have a powerful exchange of ideas between the business pastor (Cedric the Entertainer) and Hawke’s prayer-less disgust. (I’ve seen how a business-minded pastor destroys the Spirit of a church while augmenting its physical presence in a community. The frustration of convincing a person like that to see the folly of his ways feels hopeless.) 

Schrader’s childhood defined by his parent’s legalism perhaps left him unable to honestly reflect on the interconnection of theology and culture, and allow a sobering and substantive screenplay from both sides. After all, any average writer can regurgitate “scientific consensus” statistics and show terror at the future prospect. Any average writer can paint a church full of entrenched American “evangelicals” who deem prosperity the sine qua non favor of God. Any average writer can construct a dramatic finale untethered to the antecedent development of character and progression. But Schrader has been around long enough to be better, long enough to know that bold, counter-cultural writing (e.g. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is better than indulgence, better than political theatre, and better than recycled gabs at religion.

Go see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and you will see the work of a true talent tackling cults like the mega church theme parks that Protestantism breeds. Certainly true that very few directors that tackle Christianity, not named Bergman, do it well (modern: Tree of Life, There Will be Blood, The Silence, The Mission, Calvary, The Young Pope, Ida, Of Gods and Men | classics + Black Narcissus), and Schrader may certainly do it still, as long as he learns to dish it out in moderation.

First Reformed makes an honest effort; full of potentiality and intrigue with a plot that rightly tackles the nature of religion and the shameful manufacturing of alliances between corporations. The essence that Hawke carries for much of the first part of the film, I am deeply empathetic to. The quality of meeting people where they are for a minister is essential, illustrated beautifully in Thy Kingdom Come. But in the end, the strangeness of Schrader’s almost autobiographical catharsis in First Reformed does what Daniel Eagan (Film Journal International) says it does: “loses its way.”

RATING: B-


NOTE: After reading many of the reviews, several films keep popping up worth watching as a backdrop to the film: Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951) & Pickpocket (1959), Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), and Bergman’s Winter Light (1963).

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