First Reformed is a shocking, emotionally volatile, and difficult drama from
writer/director Paul Schrader. It is the first high-level project he has done in
years (the less said about his disastrous The Canyons starring Lindsey Lohan the
belter). It is also one of his most personal and finest films; in fact, it may
just be his greatest movie as a director (But Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
and Affliction were also excellent).
The film and many of Schraderís previous works (such as his scripts for Taxi
Driver, Hardcore, and Bringing out the Dead) are reminiscent of the works of
Robert Bresson because they suggest that suffering has a great potential to
bring about salvation or enlightenment.
The film has the same basic plot outline as Robert Bressonís classic Diary off a
Country Priest because both films are about religious leaders that have their
faith tested. Also like the title character in that film, the protagonist reads
sad stuff from his journal and he may be suffering from a chronic illness. Of
course, Schrader has written extensively on Bresson in his great book of
criticism, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson and Dryer: one of the
finest and most insightful books ever written about religion and film. A useful
and interesting reference book on a related subject is Divine Images: A History
of Jesus by Roy Kinnard and none other than Alternate Realityís head honcho, Tim
Davis which is available at
First Reformed is about a perhaps too dedicated protestant minister named Ernst
Toller in the Dutch reform church who goes through a crisis of faith after he
counsels a traumatized ex-army person who may be a potential eco terrorist.
Ethan Hawke shines even more than usual playing the well-intentioned minister,
and Amanda Seyfried provides great support playing the army manís troubled wife
who has unconditional faith in his power to heal. In every scene she seems to be
just aching for salvation.
Hawke is an uncommonly excellent actor who usually stands clear of big budget
formula films. He did some of his best work playing the same character in a
great trilogy of films directed by Richard Linklater: Before Sunrise, Before
Sunset and Before Midnight. He was also an excellent Chet Baker in Born To Be
Amanda Seyfried also has had a decent career, but she sometimes wastes her
considerable talent in tripe like Mamma Mia and Jenniferís Body (although that
film has some defenders), but we all have to eat I guess. She plays Mary the
pregnant wife (of course she is named Mary after Jesusís mother) who is deeply
concerned about her miserable and unstable husband who may go off any minute.
It is easy for Reverend Toller to identify with the couple because he too is
familiar with military related tragedy. He used to be married, but his marriage
distingrated after he was blamed for encouraging his son to enlist during the
Iraq War before his son was killed. This is one of the reasons he became a
religious leader. He has a personal stake in the counseling because he feels
that he can atone for the death of his son by saving the military man.
Michael (I guess it would have been too much to name him Joseph although you can
also argue he is kind of an insane environmental Christ figure) is a radical eco
activist. As Toller starts to read up on the issues at hand he finds that there
is an evil corporation that is risking lives in order to save money in the area,
and the situation is complicated because the group gives substantial donations
to the church.
To his horror Tollman finds a bomb sewn into Michaelís vest and he must decide
whether to turn him in, keep quiet or join him in his mission. In effect,
Tollman becomes a potential minister version of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver
(which Schrader also wrote), a man who has seen and gone through so much bad
stuff that he may be willing to go to any lengths even murder to make the world
a better place.
I do not want to give too much away but the film also features one of the most
erotic non sexual scenes since the game sequence involving Cybill Shepard and
Charles Grodin in 1972ís The Heartbreak Kid.
Tollman has a minister friend and boss who preaches in an African American
church who wisely counsels him not to get too involved with the parishioners.
Perhaps the fact that he is played by the comedian, Cedric the Entertainer
indicates that we are supposed to consider him a glibber and shallower
counterpart to Tollman. He represents the big business, corporate, or more show
biz side of religion, but he never seems to think too deeply about his place or
purpose in the world.
Strictly pro-organized religion critics (like the National Reviewís Kent Jones)
may feel disappointed or let down by the filmís ending because they were perhaps
looking for an easy theistically grounded solution. But I was immensely pleased
with the filmís final humanistic and surprisingly life affirming message that
love (at least temporarily) can conquer all. Or can it? Maybe Easter Sunday can
come after Good Friday some of the time.
First Reformed makes most of the yearís big name films look flat, insignificant,
and forgettable in comparison. So far First Reformed is by far the most powerful
and extraordinary English language film I have seen this year. I have not
stopped thinking about it since I saw it in May.
First Reformed will become available on August 21 on DVD.