Directed by: Paul Schrader
Premise: A pastor (Ethan Hawke) counsels a young man who is concerned with threats to the environment. Their exchanges dredge up the pastor’s own anxieties about the world and he is overcome with despair.
What Works: Filmmaker Paul Schrader often deals with religious themes and existential angst. First Reformed brings both of those ideas together in a story that is an intellectual and emotional wringer. The film centers on a pastor who copes with turmoil from all directions. He is a divorcee whose son has died and who oversees a church that almost no one attends while coping with an unidentified illness that he medicates with booze. With all that bearing on him, the pastor counsels a young man who is so distraught by the effects of climate change and environmental degradation that he is driven to radicalism and wants his wife to get an abortion. As hyperbolic as that all sounds, First Reformed is remarkably even toned. The film is about the struggle to maintain faith in a world without hope and the filmmakers take the despair seriously. The movie avoids sentimentality and instead gets to a credible feeling of hopelessness. In that respect, First Reformed is a movie that is in touch with this particular cultural moment. First Reformed offers a lot to unpack and it corrals together various topics such as environmental catastrophe, political corruption, and the loss of religious faith but the movie cuts deeper than the zeitgeist. The pastor’s anxiety dramatizes something essential to human beings—the search for meaning in our lives and the need to believe that the world is a decent place—and does it in a way that is intellectually challenging and emotionally raw. First Reformed is led by Ethan Hawke who provides an extraordinary performance. The actor is very careful and Hawke funnels the character’s anguish into the subtleties of his performance. The character’s anxiety is evident in Hawke’s posture and he delivers Schrader’s narration with a palatable tension.
What Doesn’t: First Reformed is a movie that eludes easy classification. It’s not a film made with an obvious audience in mind. First Reformed is a religious picture but not in the way we are accustomed to thinking about that kind of film. This picture is not going to play for the audience that turned out for God’s Not Dead. In fact, writer and director Paul Schrader appears to take a deliberate shot at those sorts of movies—and the kind of Christianity that they embody—in a scene in which the pastor counsels a group of young people. This is to the credit of Paul Schrader and his film; First Reformed is about the hard questions of faith and Schrader is not interested in easy, feel-good answers. But in the current social climate, First Reformed may not reach the faith-based audience. However, it’s not a mainstream picture either and some of the narrative choices are going to confuse or frustrate some viewers. That’s most obvious in the deliberately inconclusive ending. It’s an appropriate finale for this story but it’s not a commercial ending and it doesn’t provide the kind of closed resolution that mainstream viewers usually look for in a motion picture.
Bottom Line: First Reformed doesn’t go out of its way to be palatable to the audience but it is an extraordinarily visceral experience. The movie pairs agonizing despair with a fierce intellect. The result is a masterwork. Paul Schrader’s career has had radical highs and lows but First Reformed may be the title that best defines his filmography.
Episode: #703 (June 17, 2018)