First Reformed review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s chilling desperation within First Reformed to do the right thing. Ethan Hawke plays Protestant minister Toller, struggling with his alcoholism. Giving up the booze becomes twice as tough when he makes the chilling discovery that someone within his flock was planning to be an environmental terrorist. Compelled by how such a man came to such fervent desperation leads Toller down a somber path of coming to terms with his faith and psychology.
Writer/director Paul Schrader has crafted another masterpiece akin to his engrossing script for Taxi Driver. Here is a film that delves deep into the mind of a minister that is struggling to make sense of his religion in the most intense of times. The more he learns about this man and his fight against polluting companies, the more Toller grows uneasy. He looks up all the information on climate change, from scientific data to business news, growing disgusted with what is being done to the planet. The most shaking aspect of this is the disinterest. He speaks of this matter with the local men of the cloth and businessmen, told to hush for speaking about a topic considered to be political. Toller insists it isn’t political but nobody wants to hear it.
But this is far more than mere politics or even environmentalism for Toller. This is about a struggle of the soul. Trying to find a reason for his faith, Toller keeps a diary that he writes in, stating he’ll do so for a certain period and then burn it. Through his writing, we listen to his thoughts that grow more erratic and uneasy, regretting his words and ideas. There’s a sordid past that comes into play, continuously haunting him as he wants to move forward. He fears there is no movement forward. No more moves except a desperate one that could lead to his destruction.
Ethan Hawke delivers what may be the best performance of his career. He starts off the picture as a gentleman and later a terrified one. We can see the shakes slowly come as his fears surface and bottles empty. Even when armed with an alarmingly brooding soundtrack and much footage of online news that shakes Hawke to his core, he holds his own in a performance that is unlike anything he has ever done before. That’s not to say the rest of the cast doesn’t do a great job. Amanda Seyfried plays the pregnant woman informing Hawke of her husband’s research on the subject, serving as a face for the fears of the future. Philip Ettinger as said husband has such a contagious pessimism that deeply challenges the beliefs of Hawke, bringing out some frightening realities. And Cedric the Entertainer also gives one of the best performances as a pastor of a megachurch who is more interested in maintaining a status quo than digging too deep.
Terror is everywhere for Toller in this script. A suicide vest harbors a bitter realization. Blood in his urine signals a loss of time as a disease creeps inside. There’s contempt for a right-wing polluter that Toller tries calmly to reason with but knows there’s no convincing. Everything keeps headed down a spiral of pollution and pointlessness, as Hawke pleads for action, that somebody has to do something.
First Reformed is a religious film but not the safe depictions of the faith that many Church-goers may expect from their films about God. It’s especially not for the climate change deniers who will no doubt strike the film down as propaganda and then probably sputter into a thrashing about how everyone else is to blame except corporations. But that’s part of what Paul Schrader wants out of his film; to be blunt and bold, not serve up a soft and easily digestible message about climate change. We’ve had those talks and Schraders done with that conversation. Now is the time to look deep within your soul and come to terms with the world as it is. First Reformed embraces this paranoia head-on so that one man’s descent into the darkness of being a helpless religious figure comes from a relatable place but still somewhere most fear to tread.