Movie Review: First Reformed
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Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
by Jason Koenigsberg
Paul Schrader is not as well known as big shot movie auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, although he came to prominence at the same time and has worked with many of them over the years, most notably Scorsese since Schrader wrote the scripts for Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Unlike his peers, Paul Schrader did not even see a mainstream movie until he was 18 because of his strict Calvinist upbringing. This is evident and important to all of the films Paul Schrader has written and directed for the past forty plus years. He deals with themes of God, religion, faith, control, lust, and man’s moral weaknesses. American Gigolo (1980), Affliction (1998) and Auto Focus (2002) are just some of the films he has written and directed that examine those themes of men being tempted and losing their faith. Knowing his background helps since all of those themes are on full display in his newest feature First Reformed which may be the most ‘Paul Schraderiest’ movie he has ever wrote and directed.
First Reformed opens with old fashioned credits over a black screen but slowly the black fades to reveal a white church in the woods at night, as the camera moves forward toward the church in the center of the shot, the trees around it disappear and everything becomes brighter. The sky slowly turns from total blackness into daylight with the large powerful image of the church looming over us, haunting us and also beckoning us to come in. It is as if to say God is calling us to enter the church to enlighten us, and some will go inside out of faith and others will out of fear. After the epic opening shot the audience quickly learns that this is the oldest operating church in Albany County New York about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Also interesting along with the unusually old fashioned style of the credits, First Reformed is not shot in anamorphic widescreen but instead the full frame style of older classic movies, or the pan and scan square style that was always seen on older tube televisions. An interesting choice that adds both a classic and claustrophobic feel.
Presiding over the church’s very small congregation is a reverend played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke has been a consummate actor for the past thirty years as audiences have watched him grow up and evolve on screen from a child star, to a sexy 90’s heartthrob, to a mature nuanced actor and his performance in First Reformed may be his most mature leading role yet. He plays a reverend who has suffered great loss and now lives a very enclosed and isolated life. He is asked to help a pregnant woman played by Amanda Seyfried to try and help her convince her husband that they should keep the child and that the world is not a terrible place. This forces him to confront many internal conflicts he has been dealing with and also opens up new ones. Hawkes gradual change is noticeable and remarkable to watch how the events he goes through take a physical and emotional toll on him and therefore on the audience since we see everything from his perspective.
First Reformed has a very cynical view of the world not just about organized religion but also the current political situation involving global warming. The government has turned science into a political tool to use to their benefit for to get votes and also fill their wallets. First Reformed condemns Christianity for not taking a moral stand on helping our planet. It portrays the religious right as being in cahoots with the big corporations that are making money off of poisoning and polluting our planet.
First Reformed works as a political allegory for a concept that few have spoken up about. Why don’t religious leaders say more and do more about protecting our environment? This film works even better as a portrait of lonely lost souls, driven to a cause which gives them a purpose to keep living and fighting. Hawke’s performance is what drives the film and is one of the best illustrations of depression and alcoholism as he falls deeper into despair as the film moves along. The ending shot is as much of a beauty to behold as the opening where it can be taken literally or on a surreal and symbolic level about what lonely people need the most and the pleasures and pain of living that we all often mask under our clothes, our skin and our smiles. First Reformed is one of the most moving and important films of 2018 so far.