Sundance London: First Reformed

First Reformed
First Reformed
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric Kyles

by Joanna Orland

A demanding film to say the least, days after watching First Reformed, I am still unsure of how I feel about it. While I certainly didn’t outright enjoy watching it, or particularly like it, I immensely respect many aspects of it.

Reverend Toller (powerfully played by Ethan Hawke) is having a crisis of faith: A former soldier who encouraged his own son to join the service, Toller loses his son to the Iraq war, his marriage subsequently falls apart, and he finds himself as the reverend of a small, tourist-laden church. More of a museum than a place of worship, First Reformed is owned and managed by a much larger congregation which is depicted as more of a corporation than place of worship. And unsubtley so – the church building looks like a large company headquarters, the head priest (Kyles) has a huge office manned by a personal secretary, and at one point one of Reverend Toller’s constituents literally states that she prefers to attend First Reformed as it doesn’t feel like a big corporation unlike its governing church. The point director Paul Schrader is making here is overt, but works in the film’s favour; there is enough other abstractness going on for the audience to appreciate some decisive clarity when they can grasp it.

The church as a corporate metaphor continues throughout as First Reformed is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It turns out that the head of giant anti-environment corporation Balq is the main sponsor in charge of the service. Again, First Reformed is unsubtle to the core, but is always on point.

The story of Reverend Toller unfolds as one of his patrons, the obviously named Mary (Seyfried), asks him to speak with her husband Michael who is an intensely serious environmental activist. When Toller’s counselling leads to Michael’s suicide, Toller takes on all of Michael’s environmental worries, intersecting with his faith, making him question if God will forgive us for destroying the earth.

As Toller’s faith disintegrates, so does his body. He spirals into alcoholism and a possible cancer diagnosis. He is crumbling, losing all control as he loses all faith. His only saving grace is Mary. The film descends into madness with Ethan Hawke’s performance at its core. His strong portrayal of Toller holds the audience captive until the very last second, when an abrupt twist almost negates all of the heightened madness that precedes it.

Difficult to digest and tense to watch, First Reformed is a very taxing film in spite of some undisguised messages. A certain return to form for writer/director Paul Schrader (Dog Eat Dog, The Canyons), the impact of First Reformed can be described best by Ethan Hawke himself, “It was like hearing an old lion roar in the jungle”.


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