First Reformed: Fascinating Ideas Undone by an Erratic Character Arc
Writer/director Paul Schrader may not exactly be a household name, but if you’re any kind of film connoisseur, then you’ve more than likely seen one of the several critically acclaimed projects that he’s written the screenplays for, which has included “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” For his latest project, “First Reformed,” he returns with yet another intimate character study that may seem a little familiar to those connoisseurs mentioned earlier (Schrader admittedly “borrowed” from multiple sources), but which he attempts to make all his own as he delves into various themes of faith and more.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor at New York’s historical First Reformed Church, which is about to celebrate its 250 anniversary. His flock is rather small, but he remains ever vigilant in his duties, including counseling those who seek his advice. One day he is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman who wishes for Toller to speak to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is an environmental activist who believes that bringing a child into a world that has no hope of survival would be wrong. A shocking discovery made shortly after their talk leads to a tragic incident, one that kicks off a change in Rev. Toller that will have him struggling with questions of faith, the environment, and the future.
“First Reformed” is a somewhat subdued character study in which Schrader explores this radical shift in Toller’s worldview, which is thrown into a chaotic state after his meeting with Michael, who explains (“preaches” you might say) that the world is basically a lost cause when it comes to the environment and that it will be practically unsustainable by the year 2050. This is topped off with the pressures of the upcoming re-consecration of his church, health concerns, and tensions caused by his various relationships with friends and co-workers. Throughout all of this, you can see the kind of character arc that Schrader wants to delve into, and it certainly makes for a fascinating idea, but when it comes to the execution of this arc, it leaves a little to be desired.
For starters, the change that Rev. Toller goes through comes off as being far too sudden. After one chat with Michael, and a subsequent tragic event, he very quickly becomes obsessed with pollution and how it’s affecting the world. The character development is very garbled and muddled throughout, with point A not clearly connecting to point B and so forth. Eventually, it feels as though it all comes crashing down to the end of a rather confused arc, with Toller’s struggle getting neither here nor there. Schrader clearly has points he wants to make along the way, points that are partially discussed in an intriguing fashion throughout, but which mostly fall by the wayside as Toller’s erratic journey proceeds.
Now, that’s not to say that the film is a total loss. It’s most definitely not. Aside from being beautifully made (Schrader directed the film as well), we are treated to an excellent performance from four-time Oscar nominee (two for acting, two for writing) Ethan Hawke. He brings a great quiet dignity to Rev. Toller, dealing quite well with the rapid and disjointed changes that the character goes through, leaving behind a memorable and mesmerizing turn that is never short of compelling throughout the two-hour runtime. Credit must also be given to Amanda Seyfried as young Mary and to Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) as a fellow pastor at another church, both of whom are quite effective in their roles.
“First Reformed” ends up feeling like a film that needed another draft or two to help iron out the wrinkles in its main character’s arc. With more clearly defined points on his path, as opposed to the jarring jumps it takes, the film could have been a powerful exploration of Toller’s transition from contented pastor to a heavily-troubled soul. Still, you have to admire Schrader’s bold attempt to tell this thought-provoking tale. One thing’s for sure, despite some fundamental flaws, it’s hard to say that it’s a film you’ll forget about any time soon. It remains a testament to the strength of Schrader’s writing that, even when the film doesn’t turn out for the best, there’s still something there for the audience to grasp on to. 2.5/4 stars.
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