Director: Paul Schrader.
Starring. Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger. USA. 1h 48m.
It hasn’t been that long since we saw Ethan Hawke play a slightly different priest in the terrifying horror Regression (2015), alongside the talented Emma Watson. In First Reformed he returns, not as the same character, but a totally different priest, a broken man who’s suffering from stress, loss of his son and the drastic effects of alcoholism while facing the void he experiences a spiritual and psychological crisis, one that he can only deal with slowly and in his own stunning and slightly confusing way.
The film opens with Reverend Toller (Hawke) writing down his thoughts in a journal, declaring that he’s going to keep the journal for 1 year then destroy it. He’s the head of First Reformed, a 250 year old Dutch Reformed Church in Snowbridge New York. Like many churches in the area it faces dwindling attendances but receives support from a nearby “megachurch” who own and care for the historical landmark which has a special place in history as it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Tollers life has been hard and he literally is a man who’s facing the void and it’s gladly smiling back and constantly throughout the film he’s always eager to take that first step into it. As an ex-military Chaplin he’s been struggling with the death of his son Joseph who was killed in Iraq, he feels guilt for having encouraged him to enlist, his estranged wife tries to look out for him but her presence only irritates him further, and he seems committed to drinking himself to death, until he receives a call from Mary (Seyfried).
He agrees to meet Mary, and counsels her and her husband Michael, after years of conservation work, Michael is now paranoid that climate change is going to render most of the planet uninhabitable within the next few years and therefore he’s pressuring his wife to abort their baby as he doesn’t to bring new life into a world that isn’t going to last long. His passion overflows as he begins to shovel information at the priest who tries to calm the situation. Sadly as much as Toller just wants to tell him to grow up, so he can get a drink, he’s a good man with good intentions and he does his best to sit and listen but it’s an incredibly disturbing situation.
Before he can get to meet the couple a second time, a disturbing find by Mary sparks off a series of unfortunate events,which sees Toller taking on a more active role in looking after Mary to questionable levels, while researching all of Michael’s papers and slowly the extremist ideas start to crossover to this man of god.
It’s quite fascinating to see this man turn from a physical mess, his drinking is decimating his body and he’s pretty much on his way out from the beginning of the film, but as he becomes an environmental radical his mental deterioration is more disturbing. His actions becomes harsher, he finally tells the ex wife what he really feels, and while schooling children about the Underground Railroad his attitude is that of Morticia Addams asking kids about how witches feel while they are burning alive. Without realising it he becomes a dark and sinister character.
Generally the film has a twilight feel about it, most of its shot with blue and grey tones, the only warmth is when Mary appears or when alcohol is involved, warmer tones enter the film and it feels homely again. Until a sequence of uncomfortable turns take place that lays out an shocking ending that will turn a few stomachs and anger others while disturbing all.
While the acting is superb throughout, some of the situations feel a little less realistic but they are handled well, the spark of the film isn’t so much how it’s presented but how it displays how radical ideas can be spread like an infection even to those who think they are immune to them.
R -Regression (2015), Boyhood (2014), Light Sleeper (1992)
L – Faith on the line
5s -Ethan Hawke