First Reformed (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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First Reformed (2018)

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The cold weather does little to encourage attendance at First Reformed church. Reverend Ernst Toller's dispassionate approach to his sermons provide little reason to stay. When one of his parishioners comes to Ernst with ecological concerns, Ernst begins an uneasy journey through what remains of his faith. Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay for and directs First Reformed, which stars Ethan Hawke.

"Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers."

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) offers the above line of cold comfort to Michael Mansana (Philip Ettinger) in the opening passages of Paul Schrader's First Reformed. Michael despairs over the condition of the planet, neatly presented with charts and factoids aplenty as the stunned Reverend listens. The difference between Michael and Ernst is Michael has reason to despair and Ernst is so mired in codependency he's latched on to Michael's despair as a way to build reliance on himself in a way religion failed to do so.

Ernst's codependency is a fascinating subject that receives little attention outside Schrader's specific aim - to show what happens when a Reverend meets an atheist and goes online for what seems to be the first time. This places First Reformed into broad cynicism, not informed despair, and shallow nature of Schrader's pessimistic screenplay gets no favors from Hawke's equal parts self-pitying and growling performance.  First Reformed is a bad film, one that continues Schrader's downward trend from The Canyons, and so thoroughly lacks in compelling attributes that I started to wonder how this man could also be responsible for Bringing Out the Dead and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.Schrader's most compelling characters start in the gutter and take actions to move toward a slightly nicer gutter. Ernst's journey doesn't involve as much change with a faith is so ill-defined that the idea a trip to the internet could begin shaking him up would have been out-of-place in the '90s. His crisis is less convincing as the historical church he preaches from receives its support from a connected mega-church run by Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). Tossed-off lines about Ernst's tragic past tell instead of show Ernst's story when what we have to see is Hawke's wet eyes and gravely voice screaming, "I am generic angst."

This is all without getting into the women of First Reformed, both of which want to sleep with Ernst, and neither written in a way to give hints as to why or who they are. Schrader hasn't really graduated beyond virgin/whore women as symbol writing, even in his best films, and doubling-down on both women playing up the virgin highlights their thin writing. Amanda Seyfried is one of the best performers working and has experience playing cyphers. But she is given almost nothing to do outside making googly eyes at Hawke and participating in one of the most patently silly moments of intimacy committed to film.

I'll leave that intimate moment for you to discover because it signaled the point I abandoned what intrigue I had for First Reformed in lieu of incredulity. It's a moment taken so seriously with effects so oddly implemented that I briefly thought Schrader snapped. That might have moved First Reformed into better territory but it's back to Hawke's glaring over monitors and businessmen before long. If film helps us empathize over the impossible gulf between our experiences then this moment signifies how disconnected the result can be when it fails.

I was also initially intrigued by Schrader's use of the Academy ratio that makes First Reformed one of the most square films I've seen. He claims to have found inspiration from the Polish film Ida but gleaned none of the beautiful photography of that film. With First Reformed, once you've seen one shadowy figure awkwardly figuring out what to do with their body in the expanded frame, you've seen the rest of them. The other obvious visual point of comparison is with Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, yet Schrader is more interested in how sound moves through the old church instead of Bergman's interest in light.Sound is the one of two points in First Reformed that succeeded. The echoes and thuds of steps within the church, the way songs feebly echo back onto themselves without listeners, and the unsteady crunch of snowy earth threatens to give way under Ernst's feet. The sound of First Reformed maintains a consistently successful tone even when the visuals and performances don't. The other successful point is brief, but terrifyingly effective, as Cedric Kyles' mega-church pastor matter-of-factly replies to Ernst's concerns about God wanting to destroy the world with, "He did once, for forty days and forty nights."

Kyles' easy dismissal of humanity's stewardship over the Earth as part of God's plan terrified and moved me in a way the rest of First Reformed failed to. That's because there's a contradiction in Kyles' character that received exploration - no matter now brief. Ernst is a whining mess of ill-defined faith in a film too self-serious to read as parody and too shallow to read as serious. The pains of generic white man angst have received plenty of feature-length treatments and there's little reason to seek out First Reformed's.

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First Reformed (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by Paul Schrader.
Starring Ethan Hawke.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Too bad. The overall concept is interesting, for sure. “First Reformed” church would be teaching/preaching the eternal sovereignty of God. As this relates to man’s stewardship of the planet could be a worthy topic to explore. Unfortunately, it sounds like the preacher is lost and ineffectual. Not entertaining to watch, it seems. Thanks for the “heads up”.

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