Movie Review: Drama/Thriller – First Reformed

Directed by Paul Schrader

Written by Paul Schrader

Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, and Victoria Hill

 

*Spoilers*

 

I’ve decided to keep a journal. Not the usual review detailing what I did or didn’t like about a movie, but the kind of journal a deeply thoughtful or deeply delusional person might write when he questions his own perceptions of a movie. The kind of journal you write when you’re writing a parody of a movie about an unstable character who keeps a journal. The kind of journal you write when you aren’t sure how to express to your readers that you’re not sure if you’re in on the director’s joke or if the director would think you’re one of those isolated nutjobs he makes movies about.

I will keep this journal for a full year, after which, for no apparent reason, it will be destroyed, first by shredding, then by burning, and then by mixing the ashes with a banana milkshake and feeding it to my cats, none of which will matter because by then I’ll have posted it and it will have been on my blog the whole time.

December 14, 2018
I’ve just seen Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and found it very powerful. There are so many things I wish to discuss about this film. I know this will be an easy review.

December 15, 2018
I’ve begun to take notes on the film, but since my rental period is not yet over, I’ve decided to watch it again.

December 15, 2018
I have watched the film again, this time spending several hours viewing, taking notes, and writing down dialogue. I found it even more powerful on second viewing, even tearing up once or twice. I have six pages of notes. This will be an easy review.

December 15, 2018
This is what I’ve written so far:

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was the seminal 70s movie about the disintegration of the American spirit. Its protagonist, the bitter schmuck Travis Bickle, was a walking parable of post-Watergate disillusionment, an angry American anti-hero whose ruthless act of vigilante violence, heralded as heroism, became an act of twisted personal redemption. Made over 40 years ago, Taxi Driver is equally relevant today for its themes of violent catharsis and its depiction of a disenfranchised angry white male and self-appointed victim. Its screenplay, written by Paul Schrader and often cited as one of the greatest ever written, impacted not only Scorsese’s artistic career, but set the stage for Schrader’s own career as a screenwriter and director.

December 15, 2018
I regret writing that first paragraph. It’s overly dry, but all other approaches have failed me equally. Since there is a clear thematic connection between this film and Taxi Driver, I’ve decided to keep it.

December 15, 2018
I have written a second paragraph:

Schrader, as he was in Taxi Driver, is again concerned with misdirected anger and redemption in his latest film, First Reformed. But this time his protagonist is a man of the cloth, and a sympathetic one at that. He’s earnest and well spoken, calm and measured. We feel for him, even as his life gets darker, even as he finally goes frighteningly over the top. What’s more, there’s a real, if allegorical, Christian redemption at the end brought on by penance and apparently, god’s grace that is genuinely moving. In between there are touches of symbolism, mysticism, and dreamlike moments that add an intriguing depth to the film. Schrader may be warning us of the dangers of obsessive faith, but he likewise sees more in his protagonist than just another nut intent on exalting himself through violence.

December 16, 2018
I’m not sure where to go from here. I have bits and pieces written, but no ideas for a unifying narrative. The second paragraph brings in some basic themes but I’m not sure how to expand on them. Something is gnawing at me, but I’m not sure what it is. I am unsure of what to do? Maybe it would be best to slap a spoiler warning on it and start with my usual over-explanation of the plot and see where that takes me:

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the minister of the 250-year-old historical church of the movie’s title. Constructed by Dutch Reformed Protestants, and once used as a sanctuary on the underground railroad, First Reformed now acts as a showpiece for the nearby mega -church, Abundant Life, run by the earnest, if generic, preacher, Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). Though Toller performs a regular Sunday service, only a few parishioners attend, reducing him to little more than a groundskeeper, tour guide, and souvenir shop attendant.

Isolated by his vows and his lifestyle, he lives in a spare parsonage with little more furniture than a bed and a dining room table with a single chair. For whatever reason we are not privy to, he vows to keep a journal for a full year and then destroy it, likening it to a prayer, or a conversation with god. Toller’s journal entries, spoken in Hawke’s soothing, dispassionately measured narration, provide a fascinating commentary on Toller’s experiences, a non-narrative narration, and a look inside his spiritual state of mind. Initially the journal is filled with Christian self-doubt. He feels guilty about everything. “When I read these words, I see not truth but pride,” he comments on a previous sentence and then doubles down with “I wish I had not used the word ‘pride’ but I cannot cross it out.” But soon we learn that Toller’s doubts go deeper.

 

Notes of a madman.

 

The trigger that ignites him, is Michael (Paul Ettinger), a forlorn young environmental activist whom Toller has agreed to counsel upon the request of his newly pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Michael wants his wife to abort the child because of the inevitable suffering it will endure due to the coming world-wide ecological collapse that awaits us all, a world he paints all too vividly and frighteningly. “What am I going to say to her,” he asks, “when she grows up and looks me in the eye and says, ‘you knew about this all along.’” Toller gives a rational response about hope and faith in god, but then admonishes Michael with a certain righteous indignation, reminding him that anguish over the uncertainty of a child’s future can’t compare to the loss of a child already born. Toller, we learn, is a former military chaplain tortured with guilt over the death of his son, which he blames on himself for having encouraged the son to enlist, per the family tradition, but against the protestations of his wife. The death of the son in Iraq, six months later, has since resulted in the breakup of Toller’s marriage.

Toller and Michael agree to meet a later time, but the conversation and Michael’s despair will linger with him. “Can god forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?” Michael asks him. But he might as well have said “Can god forgive you for sending your son to die in an immoral war?” Michael’s grim depiction of the future has only deepened Toller’s grief. Toller later dismisses Michael’s concerns and his own grief in his journal. “Despair,” he writes, “is the development of pride so great that it chooses one certitude rather than admit god is more creative than we are.”

Michael reschedules his meeting with the reverend. But Toller is called to the house again by Mary while her husband is at work. While looking through Michael’s tool chests for batteries, she’s discovered a suicide vest, a terrorist’s jacket laced with dynamite for the purpose of political violence. Toller, the two agree, will dispose of the vest and the two will deal with the situation themselves, as contacting the police would only worsen the depressed Michael’s condition. The next day, Michael texts Toller and changes the location of their meeting to a local park. When Toller arrives, he finds Michael’s body, the top of the head obliterated by a suicidal rifle shot.

As requested in a letter from the deceased, Toler eulogizes Michael in a pro-ecology ceremony set at a waste site, with singers from Abundant Life singing Neil Young’s “Who Will Save the World?” The song and the impact of Michael’s death heavily impact Reverend Toller, who is slowly breaking down. Toller too has become polluted. He corrupts his body with alcohol and continuously postpones medical treatment for an unknown ailment that has caused him painful and bloody urination. He rejects all help, including that of Esther (the devastating Victoria Hill), Abundant Life’s choir director who smothers Toller with unwanted nurturing. Though he condemns Michael for descending into despair, Toller himself has already begun the descent into hopelessness. He questions whether god is listening to him. “I know that nothing can change and there is no hope,” he writes, quoting the Christian monk Thomas Merton. Toller begins to project his personal own grief onto Michael’s environmental cause, making it his own, and eventually spiraling into a dark hell of unthinkable action.

Toller is ultimately saved from his dark thoughts in the film’s final moments by penance and grace, embodied in the allegorical presence of the pregnant Mary in a cathartic burst of emotion that washes over you like a baptism. I’m not a religious man, but I am deeply spiritual. I believe in the power and beauty of mythological truth, even if I don’t take it all literally. The spiritual truth of First Reformed is the salvation of hope. For what else is faith but the choosing of hope over despair.

December 17, 2018
Well that’s all very well and good. It’s overlong but it does give an accurate description of the character’s decline which I feel is necessary to get at my point. Wait, what was my point again? I’m still unsure. I’m questioning my perception of the film. In the meantime, I’ll just write some more shit and see where that takes me:

Despite is powerful ecological message, First Reformed is only peripherally concerned with the destruction of Earth’s environment. At heart it’s a story about hope vs. despair, and the need to balance the two, and the dangers of taking faith personally. But the two themes are so ingeniously integrated that there’s no separating them.

As for the Earth and her ecological future, Schroeder sees little hope. Michael presents only the bleakest forecasts for the future of the planet and the only antidote Schrader seems to propose is hope and of all things, prayer. It can hardly be an accident that a scene where Mary asks Toller to pray with her is presided over by a strange lamp resembling a giant eye. In dream imagery, a disembodied eye is considered a symbol of insight. Toller’s and therefore Schrader’s, insight is to remind us that the problem of global warming is spiritual, not political, suggesting that we face our personal and Earth-wide demons not through acts alone, put through prayer and hope. That’s an undeniably faith-centered message and it resonates more deeply than most of the lame faith movies that hide out in multiplexes and are seen by mostly faith-based crowds, delivering their messages in artless, ham-handed tracts disguised as drama.

December 17, 1918
I’m still not happy with what I have written so far. It brings up the basic themes of the film, but something isn’t right. Do I like Toller too much? Am I supposed to see him as just another Schrader nut-job? Am I so enamored of him that I’m ignoring the weight of his darkness? I’ve never been so unsure about writing a review before. I’ve decided to procrastinate by writing about Ethan Hawke’s performance:

None of this would likely have worked if not for the transcendent performance of Hawke. The level of Toller’s faith is deeply felt in his voice and face. “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” choir singers harmonize in the luxurious Abundant Life auditorium while Toller enters. As he sits, and listens, a range of emotions slowly creep across his face. His eyes deepen. His mouth tightens. He closes his eyes, the skin around them wrinkling, as if he’s simultaneously on the verge of tears and deep communion with god. But there are no histrionics. It’s all amazingly understated, his expressions transitioning like the subtly changing lines of a cartoonist that with the slightest tweak can change from one emotion to the next, yet each indelibly carved like one of Rodin’s wrenched martyrs. Later as the façade of Toller’s denial gives way to a meltdown in front of Jeffers, his grief is more stated, yet Hawke remains true to the muted countenance his character.

December 17, 2018
Okay, that was a bit much. ‘Rodin’s wrenched martyrs?’ Yikes! I’ll procrastinate further by making little notes that have no context within the body of the review but that I will try to work in later:

In a strange misnomer, Toller mistakenly cites a passage from “The Book of ‘Revelations'” instead of the properly singular “Revelation,” a common mistake but one you’d think a man familiar with the bible would know.

December 18, 2018
My knowledge of the director’s previous work just doesn’t synch with my perception of the movie. Perhaps I needed to brush up on Schrader a bit, watch some interviews on YouTube, and re-watch Taxi Driver.

December 18, 2018
The first thing I watched was an interview with Schrader on YouTube in which he discusses delusional people and how they relate everything to themselves. He also talks disdainfully of his strict religious upbringing. Naturally, he won’t discuss the ending since he’s promoting the film, which leaves me wondering – Does Paul Schrader think I’m a psycho? Is First Reformed’s redemption for real? Is it a mockery? Is Schrader expressing some real spiritual faith even as he condemns it? Or am I just another deluded shmuck, one review away from visiting the online suicide vest store? This interview has only made my doubt my perceptions even more. It’s time to re-watch Taxi Driver.

December 18, 2018
I have never been a huge fan of Taxi Driver. I consider it Scorsese’s most overrated film. The protagonist is an angry, mentally disturbed stalker, the kind of guy who takes a woman to a porno on the first date. The film derives most of its impact from its brilliant Bernard Herrmann score which shifts from a jazzy theme to thrashing dissonant chords played with the composer’s trademark unconventional arrangements. If it does provide insight into the mind of a violent man, it’s conclusion is nihilistic and hopeless. Watching it again hasn’t helped at all.

December 18, 2018
At last, I’ve made a firm decision. I’m going to play The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I haven’t played it in a couple of years. Maybe an evening or two of gaming will help clear my head, so I can see things more clearly.

December 28, 2018
Ten days have passed and I’m almost finished with the Zelda game. It didn’t help, but merely heightened my anxiety at not having published anything for two weeks. At this point I‘m ready to say screw it and move on to the next review. I watched Roma on Netflix and started to write about it, but I can’t continue. I feel compelled, no, obsessed, with finishing the First Reformed review.

December 28, 2018
I’ve decided to write a gimmick review in which I will mimic Reverend Toller’s journal and convey my doubts while still expressing the powerful spiritual catharsis I felt while watching the film. This will be a clever way to cover my ass.

December 29, 2018
I regret that I wrote this review as a gimmick. I am going to look like an idiot. I still don’t know if I understood the film the way Schrader meant it to be understood, or whether he would consider me a Travis Bickle or Ernst Toller waiting to happen, but in the end, I’ve decided not to care. I will conclude my review with my original ending idea from my notes. It has the proper sense of drama for ending a review. And all nonsense aside, it’s an honest expression of how I feel about this film:

There is and perhaps has always been a tangible and complex Christian-based spiritual element to Schrader’s perspective that is more than blind cynicism and First Reformed may be the most fully realized expression of that vision yet. Schrader was raised with these metaphors and First Reformed walks a fine line between cynicism and spiritual euphoria. “Some are called for their gregariousness. Some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness,” Toller writes. “They are call by god because through the vessel of communication, they can reach out and hold beating hearts in their hands.” I don’t know whether Paul Schrader is gregarious, suffering, or lonely, or none of the above, but I do know that for the multiple hours I spent watching and re-watching this movie, he did indeed hold my beating heart in his hands. And that is all anyone could ever expect from a movie.

Rating: 100/100

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