First Reformed

FIRST REFORMED is another Paul Schrader broken-man-slowly-boiling-over character piece in the tradition of TAXI DRIVER and ROLLING THUNDER. This time his subject is Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, DAYBREAKERS), the very nice and thoughtful reverend of a small 250 year old church in upstate New York that still exists because it’s a historical landmark. He sermonizes to about half a dozen people on Sundays, but his duties also include being a tour guide and stocking the gift shop.

He cares about the job, but it seems like it’s one of those transferred-to-Antarctica type situations. We slowly piece together some of the problems he has, the things he’s punishing himself for and how his life went south after the death of a son in the military. He writes journal entries in a spiral-bound composition notebook which we hear as calm, reasonable sounding voiceover, but sometimes he’ll casually drop in some bit that makes you do a double take, like when he laments, “If only I could pray.” Uh… you seem like a guy who would pray, is all I’m saying.

Maybe he could just go on living like this and get by, lonely and sad but keeping a stiff upper lip going through the motions in his barely furnished living quarters with its tightly-made bed. But he gets a push from a younger couple among his congregants. Mary (Amanda Seyfried, THE MISERABLES) asks him to talk to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99), a depressed environmental activist who believes it would be immoral to bring their unborn child into this dying world. At first he seems kind of thrown off, like “Why would somebody want my advice?,” even seems like he’s trying to convince her she’d have better luck somewhere else. But she wants his help so he gives it.

The conversation is intense. Michael sees nothing but doom. He’s bitter and angry and he’s armed with scientific data and personal stories of friends murdered for their activism. But Reverend Toller has the story of losing his son, and he takes a valiant run at explaining why despair doesn’t have to be surrender. Later, in his notebook, he describes the debate as “exhilarating.” It’s rare to see a movie where theological and philosophical conversations actually do feel deep. I guess that’s Schrader’s strict Calvinist upbringing we always hear about. He’s not faking it. He really thinks about this shit.

I don’t want to say too much, but the problem of trying to help this couple gets weirder and worse, and leads to the Reverend getting in trouble with The Man. See, Michael opens Toller’s eyes to the notion that the damage mankind is doing to the earth is an affront against God. Because of this, Toller’s name is mentioned in a newspaper article related to environmental activism, and that raises the ire of Balq (Michael Gaston, SUDDEN DEATH), some local businessman who happens to be underwriting the upcoming celebration of the 250th anniversary of First Reformed, to be simulcast at Abundant Life, the megachurch presided over by Toller’s boss Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, credited as Cedric Kyles so as to not create unrealistic expectations of entertainment).

These are very believable antagonists – Jeffers seems genuinely well-meaning and understandably concerned about Toller’s well-being, but gets impatient with religious purity because how do you have time for that shit when you have to run a giant organization? And Balq seems like neither a mustache-twirler or a fake-saintly hypocrite. He’s kind of a macho capitalist who thinks he’s a cool, rich good guy. Exactly the asshole to say that talking about the environment is too “political.” It’s feels so real when Toller argues that point with him, because he’s so right but what he says goes over about as well as you’d expect in real life. Infuriating.

Schrader uses a classical style he wrote about in his 1972 book Transcendental style in film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer – long, static shots, no music (except I guess ambient sounds by Lustmord, a.k.a. Brian Williams [music sound designer, BRIDE OF CHUCKY]). He says the 4:3 aspect ratio was inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s IDA, which is a fancy way of saying Jonah Hill’s MID’90S. This sparse simplicity is a perfect reflection of the protagonist’s lifestyle, but I wish it was on film because this squeaky clean digital video feels a little more cheap-indie than beautifully minimalist. And of Schrader’s two single-minded self-flagellating zealot movies of course I prefer the ornate visuals of MISHIMA. But those wouldn’t work here.

It’s funny – since I’ve seen movies before I had to keep wondering if there was gonna be some twist like Mary is trying to set up Michael or get insurance money or something. Normal thriller shit less interesting than what the movie is actually about. No, it’s pretty straight forward – it’s a story how if you’re in a bad place and you’re a certain type of person, martyrdom might seem like a pretty good solution. Toller’s cause is much more persuasive than Travis Bickle’s. The world is in big trouble and Balq is a pretty example of why we might not be able to stop it.  So it’s a kick when it starts to become clear what Toller is planning, and especially when he unexpectedly starts doing extreme shit like (BIG FREAKINESS SPOILER) wrapping a bunch of barb wire around himself. You go from “you gotta admit he’s right” to “hey, I don’t know this guy, I just met him.”

Obviously Schrader is also saying something about organized religion, and in such a perfect way – this sad idea that the older, presumably purer version of Christianity is relegated to being a fuckin tourist trap, a cute thing people visit just to say they did, and the version more people follow is molded by a corporation that needs a Christianity that doesn’t cut into profits. And I don’t really think it’s meant this way, but religion in the movie can also be a metaphor for any other thing that gets watered down and compromised and that being a purist about it makes you a crazy person.

The Q&A podcast has a real good episode where Schrader bluntly lays out his formula for this type of screenplay. He also says that (ENDING SPOILERS FOR TAXI DRIVER AND FIRST REFORMED) he never intended people to think Bickle might be dead at the end of TAXI DRIVER but he liked that interpretation so he intentionally planned for this one to be able to be read two different ways. Oh great – encourage the fan theories, why don’t you?

I kinda dug Schrader’s Nicolas-Cage-starring THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, at least with the understanding that it was taken away from him and presented incorrectly. And I still haven’t seen THE CANYONS or DOG EAT DOG, which I heard only bad things about, but I respect the idea of Schrader just being a fringe weirdo doing offputting don’t-give-a-fuck crime movies. So I really didn’t expect to see him suddenly doing something so controlled and personal and deservedly Oscar nominated. It’s such a good mix of that dark character study he does so well with this smart theological commentary we sort of knew he was capable of. And for Hawke it’s a career highlight, a role taking full advantage of his inherent likability to make us empathize despite his flaws and follow him right off a cliff.

Just like its lead character, FIRST REFORMED is simple and easy but also passionate and then it sneaks up on you and makes you spit out your coffee and then keep thinking about it later. Can’t wait for SECOND REFORMED.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 26th, 2019 at 11:05 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “First Reformed”

  1. Saw this when it came out and, I hate to say it, but the part that’s stayed with me most vividly is SEMI-SPOILERS that terrible scene where Seyfried lays on top of Hawke and they float through space and nature and shit. Yeesh, does that look stupid and stick out like a sore thumb. I guess by-and-large I think Schrader’s films are okay, but he’s a much better writer than a director. His reputation far exceeds the quality of his output.

    FIRST REFORMED is fine but I didn’t really see what the big deal was, outside of Hawke’s performance. However, I seem to be in the minority on this.

  2. You think part 4 will just be called RE4MED?

  3. It’s an absolute crime that Hawke wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for this. Kinda like Christian Bale in Hostiles, he’s quietly commanding without being overly “actorly” and histrionic. It’s a performance that’s stuck with me, and made me appreciate what a gift we have in Hawke- an actor who can pull off something like this and “lowbrow” genre fare with equal conviction.

    In case anyone wants to do a Schrader double-feature, I can’t rave enough about Cat People ’82. It’s stylish and flashy and not entirely successful at what it tries to do, but it’s fascinating to watch and get sucked in to its dream-like haze.

  4. In part, it’s probably because I very personally identify with Ethan Hawke (who has remained stable my whole life as perhaps the only celebrity who represents a kind of person who I could meaningfully aspire to be) but this movie was absolutely shattering to me. I can’t think of another work of art which feels so honest about how hopeless the world is. Which is to say, there are plenty of dismal, hopeless movies about the inevitability of suffering, but this one comes by that hopelessness is a uniquely intellectual way. There is no obvious weakness in Toller’s logic, there is never any point where you can argue he’s missed something or has other options. If he believes what he professes he does, then the only two options are either the one he takes or the one Michael takes; the “best” option the film offers, and the one it ends on, is maybe he just gives up and tries to live a happy life and not think too much about the stuff he claims to believe in. It’s the perfect microcosm of the inescapable dismal logic of my life so far, in fact I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a fictional character that I so profoundly saw myself in. I’ve adopted the final option, but it comes with its own sort of fatalist emptiness, a willed myopia in the face of total hopelessness that anything can be done to save humanity from itself. We’ve come too far, it’s too late now. This gets worse and worse from here, and all we can do is watch it all fall apart and try and cling to our tiny lives and try to put it out of our minds as much as we can. Very few works of art can support a vision that bleak, and almost none ever try to reach that emotional point through intellectual rigor instead of emotional manipulation. I doubt it’s the best way to reach most people, but to me, watching this felt like having my guts ripped out.

  5. I love Schrader. I’m not a big fan of TAXI DRIVER, but HARDCORE, BLUE COLLAR, CAT PEOPLE, AFFLICTION, LIGHT SLEEPER, MISHIMA, and THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS are all movies I’d watch again in a heartbeat. I’ve been meaning to see this one, but lately I mostly watch stuff Mrs. Ambulance is willing to watch with me, and she’s said no twice already. I’ll get around to it – it’s free on Amazon Prime.

  6. I loved this one. Very rarely do I have to just sit and think for a few days after a movie. Also, I watched this about a week after I started journaling, so that was weird

  7. It certainly doesn’t hurt that, as a writer and from a technical standpoint, he’s incredibly proficient. Schrader may be some kind of filmatic equivalent of Willeford.

  8. I honestly consider Schrader to be one of the all-time greats. Check out his resume: MISHIMA, BLUE COLLAR, HARDCORE, TAXI DRIVER, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, THE YAKUZA, ROLLING THUNDER. Even among those incredible films, FIRST REFORMED stands out.
    It’s one of those fims I love so much that I struggle to find words to express it. Vern and Mr. Sublety did it much more eloquently than I could anyway.
    FIRST REFORMED is my favorite film of 2018 and I’ll definitely re-visit it many times over the years. Ethan Hawke’s performance is also an all-timer, his desperation just leaps off the screen and grabs the viewer, truly riveting stuff.

  9. Loved this when it came out and still do. Definitely in my top 5 of 2018. I initially related most with Toller. But Schrader does a good job of not having him clearly win the scene and argument with everyone he comes into contact with. I don’t side with them, but they’re not caricatures. Cedric’s character, in particular, makes a number of fair theological points inasfar as those debates will interest viewers. It’s also striking when I rewatched it the degree that Toller is an unreliable narrator, growingly so as his psychosis deepens–again shades of TAXI DRIVER.

    Schrader really borrowed heavily from WINTER LIGHT and DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST for this movie. I didn’t see these movies before FIRST REFORMED–both are quite good–but Schrader’s interviews and this movie spurred me to check them out.

    This movie is 10x the movie PROMETHEUS was, so I should get that out of the way when I make the comparison, but, imo anyway, it has a bit of a finale problem, where it raises such powerful questions that it can’t really answer. The movie’s ending and the possible ambiguity there, along with how the only salvation/hope is…what? satisfying his ravenous prick? didn’t quite ring right to me.

    I’m similarly furious that Ethan Hawke wasn’t nominated, and even more furious that actors and voters thought Rami Malek’s giant teeth and doing a second-rate Jamie Foxx (i.e. a less impressive musicial biopic lead performance than Jamie) was superior to Hawk’s great restraint. Can we move past this current age where people think great acting is doing showy, very physical impersonations of actual real-life people? Ethan Hawke and Bradley Cooper both were far better at adding more distinctiveness and depth to fictional characters.

  10. @Mr. Subtlety


  11. I would like to thank Mr. S for convincing me to NEVER watch this movie, which I was on the fence about previously. The very last thing I need is a movie that convincingly makes the case that the pessimism and negativity that has rendered me incapable of achieving any kind of lasting happiness in life is actually COMMON SENSE. That’s be like if Riggs handed that guy on the ledge his Beretta. I already think that stuff on my worst days. It’s bad enough hearing my own interior monologue say it. My interior monologue can be pretty convincing, the gaslighting fuck, but he’s not as good an actor as Ethan Hawke.

    Slightly better writer than Paul Schrader, though.

    Sorry asking of which, does this movie’s positive reception mean that we’re losing Low-Budget Hawke, Hardest Working Man In B-Movies? Because that’s a bummer. Not only does it mean we’re not likely to get 24 MORE HOURS TO LIVE, I also just like him a lot more when he’s classing up the gutter with us sinners than when he’s out there making capital-A Art. His level of commitment is always the same, which is what’s so admirable about him, but I can’t really follow him back into the drama realm. I’m not welcome there anymore. Not after the things I’ve said.

  12. I love that I got cocky about my writing skills immediately before typing some fuckin’ retranslated spambot gibberish like “Sorry asking of which.” Instant karma.

  13. Ethan Hawke is every few years in a well received arthouse or mainstream project, so I guess until he finally wins this damn Oscar or becomes an Avenger, B-Movie Hawke is here to stay.

  14. Yeah, but nobody cared about those. It seems like this movie is the one that finally made the straights cotton on to the fact that he’s always been awesome. I think the hive mind was still hung on him as the REALITY BITES slacker archetype (which, let’s be frank, was his worst role) for a long time and didn’t want to recognize that he can pretty much do anything, which is the kind of shit that forced him into the genre realm in the first place. I’m pretty sure that, for the last 15 years at least, most people assumed he wasn’t really in movies anymore. Now it feels like the mainstream has rediscovered him. I would respect the shit out of him if he squandered his comeback on more DTV action and horror because that’s where his heart is at, but I don’t see him doing that. I bet his next few movies will be much more high profile and much less awesome.

  15. I would say less people have seen or even heard about this movie here (Not to mention that he wasn’t even Oscar nominated for it), than BOYHOOD, THE PURGE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE PURGE, probably even BEFORE MIDNIGHT, and at this point more people remember him from TRAINING DAY than from REALITY BITES.

  16. One of the two PURGES above was supposed to be SINISTER.

  17. Hawke definitely got more praise for FIRST REFORMED than for anything he’s done in years, maybe ever. But he’s had a consistent track record of doing both drama and genre stuff for years now, so I don’t think he was banished to the B-movie realm. It seems like he can still get work in non-trashy movies, so I always kind of assumed that he made action movies and horror movies because he likes them. That’s certainly how it comes across in interviews, where he’s seemed passionate about DAYBREAKERS and PREDESTINATION and IN THE VALLEY OF VIOLENCE and THE PURGE. I would definitely be bummed if he stopped doing genre stuff, but I’m not too worried about it just yet.

  18. Of course, he could just be good at PR and secretly despises having to do genre stuff like for a paycheck. I don’t know the man’s heart. But since we all agree that he gives 100% even in the dumbest genre trash, I gotta believe that he’s into it. I mean, why bother giving such a soulful performance in 24 HOURS TO LIVE, a movie that doesn’t strictly require great acting, unless you care about the project and want to do your part in making it as good as possible?

    BrianB — I actually adored the end, which builds to the perfect apocalyptic pitch of inevitable tragedy… and then, suddenly, a little glitch throws the whole thing off. He’s gone too far now to turn back, and yet suddenly he can’t go forward. Its a beautiful evocation of how life can disrupt our lives and our plans even when we’re at our most certain. I mean, as upsetting as Toller’s solution is, it’s also very much a relief to him; he’s miserable anyway, and this is a chance for an escape as much as it is a strike against the evil of the world. He’s finally at peace, he finally has purpose, finally has some hope that he can do some good. And then, just as he’s reached the point of no return, the situation shifts and he finds his certainty that he’s doing the right thing colliding head-first with his deep care for another person. It’s an absolutely irreconcilable situation; his conscience won’t let him do what he was planning, and yet it’s the only thing left that he can do. The only thing to survives that paradox has nothing to do with philosophy or conscience, it’s just his simple instinctual need for human connection. It’s strange and awkward and confounding, and that’s just how life is.
    But that’s why I loved the ending here: certainty is easy, but life has a way of turning your most ardently held philosophy into hopeless chaos. I think I can say without false modesty that I’m a guy who desperately wants to do the right thing (regardless of how rarely I manage to do so), and that the only approach to that goal that I really understand or relate to comes through rigorous intellectual exploration. It’s the only way I know to make sense of the world and how we’re supposed to live in it. I think Toller would probably describe himself the same way, and that’s why I see so much of myself in his complete disarray at the end. When a person like Toller or me follows what seems to be an irrefutable logical argument to a conclusion which gives you a rare sense of certainty and purpose, only to find that it brings you to an impossible, unworkable scenario… it’s destabilizing on a level that’s hard to even describe. I suspect it’s somewhat akin to suddenly losing your deeply held religious faith. You go through a period where everything feels like some kind of giddy, nonsensical dream. You feel panic, desperation; every action you take feels random and out of your control. You want to die, you want a sign, you want something to resolve it all, you crave that apocalyptic sense of self-destruction that was going to wrap everything up so neatly. But nothing ever comes, and then you just keep waking up every morning, and finally you have no choice but to do the hardest imaginable thing, which is to just keep living.
    The end of FIRST REFORMED is the best portrayal of that mental journey I’ve ever seen on screen; it captures the abruptness of it, the frustration, the uncertainty rushing back in all at once, and, most of all, it captures the infuriating open-endedness of a desperate question which doesn’t have an answer. When you find out that you’re actually going to have to live, even though you don’t want to and don’t have any clue what you’re supposed to do about that. It’s strange and disorienting and awkward and beautifully unfinished.

    Mr. M – Actually, I think that’s the exact reason you should watch it… it’s a tough watch, but if you’re anything like me (and I flatter myself to imagine you are, at least in some small way), there’s something kind of comforting about watching such a uniquely relatable fictional character go through an exaggerated cycle of thinking which feels so very familiar. In a funny way, as hard as it was to watch, I felt a little less alone after seeing it. If my demons are anything like yours, they’re already all-too-aware of the litany of despair which FIRST REFORMED inventories, and will emerge from the experience without any fresh ammo, but perhaps somewhat cowed to be dragged out in the open with such vividness and empathy. Or if not, at least I can promise you Hawke’s in an upcoming crime flick with Noomi Rapace and an action film directed by RZA, so I think he’s gonna be OK.

  20. Never fear, Mr M, I’d wager Hawke will turn in awesome performances in genre movies for the foreseeable. He already had his “squares welcome him back to the limelight” moment with Boyhood, and the roles he’s taken took in the 5 years since haven’t changed much from the ones he took in the 5 years before (Daybreakers is the point at which I’d say Hawke’s current genre renaissance began, but I will be the first to admit some personal bias there)

  21. This is definitely one of those films that stays with you, largely because it treats despair seriously. Obviously, the arguments about what we’re doing to the planet make absolute sense, and every year that we see higher temperatures and more extreme weather, it becomes easier to imagine a world where humans are no longer at the center, and perhaps no longer even around. But of course, this external worry could also stand in for depression or existential despair. Also, I liked the weird scene where Hawk and Seyfried float around.

    I’d like to second an endorsement for Schrader’s Cat People remake. I ran the series not too long ago, and I had read mostly negative reviews of the 80s Cat People, but I thought it was a beautiful and strange film. In fact, all three Cat People movies are worth your time.

  22. “…and that the only approach to that goal that I really understand or relate to comes through rigorous intellectual exploration.” Mr S.

    I love Schrader, particularly AFFLICTION for it’s raw take on the way a father can wound a son, and the chaos and desolation it creates in the life of the wounded. Nolte is superb and it would not have been a stretch for him to tap into those male insecurities, judging by the personal demons on display in his own life.

    Schrader to me is at his best when he’s channeling The Wounded Man through guys like Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Major Charles Rane or the aforementioned Wade Whitehouse. I don’t really relate to the Crisis Of Faith thing he(or anyone else) does in movies like FR(which I’m yet to see but it’s on the list), not because I don’t think there’s a higher power, but because from an intellectual pov, if life and joy and happiness and security and identity and whatever else fuels your existential engine is dependent on yours and mines limited faculties trying to figure it all out without engaging the transcendent, then we are just spinning around waiting for the hammer to fall on our castles of sand.

  23. Really powerful words being said here – I’m glad a movie this small and simple and free of flashy gimmicks and hooks can inspire so much discussion. Speaking of Schrader, I saw First Reformed and Exorcist 5 within days of each other but somehow forgot they were from the same mind. There’s quite a bit that carries over between the two, mainly themes of lost faith and how men of the cloth deal with crushing hopelessness in a world gone mad. I don’t want to give away too much but the final confrontation between Merrin and Pazuzu really moved me in a way I never would have expected – after it was over I literally said “Man, Pazuzu was kind of a nice guy in this one!” which is a phrase I never thought I’d say.

  24. grimgrinningchris

    March 1st, 2019 at 6:41 pm

    While I am a big fan of most of Schrader’s work both as a writer and a director, I do notice nobody here defending THE CANYONS. Which is very very justified.

    Also, since someone else mentioned it, and I had mentioned it in some other review like a year ago… but I would love a full review from Vern on Hawke’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE.
    Pretty sure he said he saw it and dig it but never wrote a review.

  25. Yeah, I saw it at SIFF and it was way ahead of when it was available for most people so I didn’t write it up. I remember that I liked it and that there was a dog. I felt like it might’ve been missing that extra something that makes it worth doing a normal western in this day and age, but maybe starring Ethan Hawke (and the dog) was all it needed. (Oh, and wasn’t Travolta in it? And pretty good?)

  26. grimgrinningchris

    March 2nd, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    Yes. Travolta. Karen Gillan. The younger Farmiga lass. And a dog. Also Toby Hess who is really a welcome addition to pretty much any movie. And that one creepy guy from Dark Knight Rises that was Ben Mendleson’s lackey…

  27. I cannot recall the exact wording right now, but it had the best tough guy line I’ve heard in years. That alone was worth the price of admission.

  28. I saw IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE and would give it a mildly positive review. It had a great cast and some great lines. But I felt it was at least half an hour too long. Vern suggests Ethan Hawke and the dog was all it needed, but ***SPOILERS*** the dog dies pretty early on, and there’s a whole lot of downtime between that event and the climax.

    (I’ve said two or three movies should be shorter on this website now. It could be that I’m attention-deficient — I definitely am relative to some other posters on this website — but I feel like I’m at least pretty good about being patient with long or slow movies. I have more stamina than the majority of moviegoers, I think.)

  29. My Top 5 director’s I’d like to see direct an indie movie of Kevin Bacon playing Not John Mellencamp, internally tortured over the soul of America while working on his farm are, in ascending order:

    5) Gus van Sant
    4) Jim Mickle
    3) Lucky McKee
    2) Jeff Nichols
    1) Paul Schrader

    Runner Up: Joel Schumacher

  30. I finally got around to this one. I saw a lot of myself in this film, and it scared me. But the ending really threw me. Big thanks to Mr. Subtlety (over 3.5 years later) for the best interpretation of the ending I’ve come across so far.

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