First Reformed (2018)

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Paul Schrader directs Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles in this drama about an alcoholic priest who begins interacting with a fanatical environmentalist. 

A very fine film. Sometimes you can judge quite how well made a film is by how many people walk out of its Friday night screening. Throughout First Reformed’s running time I’d say about a fifth of the audience gave up. It isn’t what they wanted, what they expected when they bought a ticket… a dozen separate exits. To begin with it threatens to be a talky film… a battle of wills, a restrained attack of faith in a suburban living room between a suicidal eco-warrior and a charming but introspective priest. Who will win? The doomsayer who uses science to drive his dangerous belief system or the cautious priest… excited to have a soul to save and find some purpose beyond caretaking his picturesque church for tourists. But then the film opens out… there’s a murder mystery, a thriller element, Hawke’s priest begins to reveal deep flaws and weaknesses. Big business and corporate conspiracy begin to rear their ugly head. Someone is converted to take drastic, murderous action. We slip into the fatalist aimlessness of Taxi Driver. An out of time man, trapped in his own internal monologue, cruises the streets with vigilante death on his mind. The fact he is a mild mannered priest is both amusing and starkly troubling. First Reformed is a disturbing film. Don’t let its mannered square box screen ratio and near monochrome colour palette fool you. It picks away at sensational concepts and outlandish plot developments in it staid garments and hushed tones. A wolf in sheeps clothing. There are strands and characters that I still haven’t gotten my head around… Is Seyfried’s concerned parishioner gaslighting or setting up Hawke?… It is never explicitly stated but it makes sense how she always is supplying him with the next necessary tool for his downfall.  How serious do we take the moments of fantasy? The dreamwalking… The chaste sexual contact…. Schrader has been lost over the past decade as a gun for hire on direct to streaming fare. I’d say The Canyons is a better film than its reputation suggests. But with First Reformed he is back on the firm, fertile ground that made him a name to watch in the 70s… obsession… paranoia… stoicism… self harm… corruption… oblivion. First Reformed may not be the easiest film to digest, and it needs you to meet it halfway as a viewer, but the scope and intelligence and daring on display make it one of the must see movies of the year. And Hawke’s internal, committed performance sits with Boyhood and Before Sunrise as one of his very best.

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