Paul Schrader tells a troubling tale of faith with ‘First Reformed’ [REVIEW]

First Reformed

First Reformed is a new film, one that has been circling the festivals throughout the past couple of months and is set to be released this upcoming summer, that’s under the A24 production banner. It comes from Paul Schrader — a writer who helped pen the scripts for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ and Raging Bull, among others.

Schrader has also become an established director himself, having made over 20 feature-films to date.

Set in upstate New York, First Reformed follows a troubled reverend named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). He preaches at the local First Reformed Church and is responsible for a minuscule congregation that shrinks further and further every day. Granted, the church attracts a number of tourists who come to see the architecture and history of the building, as it once served as a spot on the Underground Railroad, but very few of them are actually interested in the church services themselves.

That’s because megachurch, Abundant Life, which is run by the well-loved Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), recently opened their doors right down the road.

Toller isn’t really too bitter about Abundant Life Church, though. He’s got far more troubling things to be bitter about these days.

He’s struggling to cope with the loss of his son, who died in the Iraq War. The real kicker is that Toller was the one who pushed him to enlist and now holds himself guilty. Since the untimely death, Toller divorced his wife and now spends his nights drinking in the church pews, alone.

credit: Twitter

Toller’s entire existence is thrown for a loop, however, when he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is a deeply disturbed environmental activist who is having trouble accepting the current status of the planet and how hopeless it all seems. Mary is five months pregnant, and Michael has recently been saying that he doesn’t want to raise a child in the world that they live in — he wants her to get an abortion. Therefore, Mary wants Toller to talk to Michael and see if he can talk him out of this phase.

Toller agrees, unsure if he’ll actually be able to make a difference.

While Michael is past the point of no return in terms of accepting help, Toller finds himself changed by the conversations he has with Michael. Maybe he does have a point — maybe the world really is a broken place, maybe humans really have done a bad job of taking care of the planet. Maybe something needs to be done about it.

And with the 200th-something anniversary of First Reformed Church coming up — an event that’s mostly being run by Abundant Life Church and a bunch of no-good capitalists — Toller sees his opportunity.

First Reformed might be Schrader’s most complicated and ambitious film that he’s made to date. It may also very well be his masterpiece, as critics and religious scholars are likely to be analyzing First Reformed for years to come.

That being said, this definitely isn’t for the common movie-goer. First Reformed demands one’s full attention and willingness to accept the unanswered, as the movie doesn’t walk you through how to feel about the subject matter.

Schrader chooses to film the whole movie in a rather unconventional way to embody this — it’s shot on a square-ratio and there’s practically no musical score to accompany any of the scenes. Everything about it looks and feels different, making the audience realize that something is off about this entire situation.

And off it is. It’s about half-way through the movie when we realize that Toller isn’t necessarily a good person. Yes, his heart is in the right place, and the concerns he has about climate change are all valid ones. Yet, his means to prove his point are extreme — creating a protagonist that we can’t necessarily root for but also can’t take our eyes off (so yes, this movie is basically Taxi Driver set in the church).

Hawke gives a tremendous performance to bring that character to life. It’s a hands-off, subtle performance — one that requires the audience do to most of the interpretation — but it’s one that’s done with a lot of humility and nuisance. Amanda Seyfried also does some of the best work she’s done in years, and it’s interesting to watch how their dynamic plays out through the movie.

And I’ll tell you this right now: if First Reformed doesn’t leave viewers divided up until this point, the ending is really going to be the final straw. There will be those who hate and despise this ending with every fiber of their being. While I can’t exactly argue against them, I can say that Schrader clearly chose to end the movie where he does with reason. It’s supposed to be ambiguous, as there are multiple ways you can interpret it. He also clearly knew he was going to get hate for the ending, so it’s worth admiring the fact that he chose to stuck with it anyway.

First Reformed likely won’t be gaining mass-appeal when it’s properly released. You aren’t going to see people lining up on the streets to get in, and I can’t even see it being as big as other A24 hits like Lady Bird or The Disaster Artist. That doesn’t make it any less important. In fact, this is a deeply moving and unsettling piece that shines a light on the subject matter that needs attention. Schrader’s work here is profound and relevant — raising questions many of us might be too afraid to ask.

First Reformed
credit: Twitter

First Reformed will be released in theaters on June 22. There’s currently no trailer for the film. Still, let us know in the comments below if First Reformed sounds like something you might be interested in seeing.

Paul Schrader tells a troubling tale of faith with 'First Reformed' [REVIEW]
  • Paul Schrader tells a troubling tale of faith with 'First Reformed' [REVIEW]
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Brandon Schreur

The fella over there with the hella good hair. Movies and TV are my jam, and the fact that I get to write about them on a regular basis is the bees knees.