‘First Reformed’ Film Prays for Redemption, Eco-Terrorism

The pastor in First Reformed  may work in a church, but his true god isn’t the Lord above.

It’s Al Gore.

Writer/director Paul Schrader’s film, available now on Blu-ray and other home video outlets, shares the story of a broken man’s quest for redemption. What emerges is the usual array of global warming talking points, the kind Hollywood can’t help inserting into its product ad nauseam.

It’s a shame, since First Reformed offers Ethan Hawke’s most powerful performance to date.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) oversees First Reformed, an antiquated church with a broken organ and empty pews. He’s content all the same, his daily chores letting him keep his emotional pain locked away, never to be explored again.

A woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) asks him to counsel her husband (Philip Ettinger), shattering Toller’s status quo. Her hubby is a budding eco-terrorist and father-to-be. It’s Toller’s job to show him why he should bring a child into this doomed world.

Their exchange is fascinating on more than a few levels, one being the word “abortion” never entering the conversation. Hawke is so dialed in as the conflicted pastor it’s as if we’re seeing him on screen for the first time. The cinematography here, as with every shot in the film, is spare and unflinching.

It’s hard to describe cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s work as merely beautiful. Try haunting, obsessive in its detail. It’s a collection of images that challenge us as much as Toller’s story. Its only flaw? Schrader’s decision to shoot First Reformed in a pretentious 1.37:1 aspect ratio.

Toller’s work is supported by a neighboring super church led by Cedric Antonio Kyles. You know him as Cedric the Entertainer, and it’s clear the occasional dramatic part fits him well.

Is Schrader’s film a cry for eco-terrorism? An example of how faith can lead us to destruction? An attack on organized religion, the kind powered by American consumerism and ego? He’s not offering any easy answers. His thumb is still pressed down on the moral scale.

A supporting character represents the company underwriting First Reformed’s 250th anniversary gala and, not so indirectly, Toller’s spiritual life. Naturally, the screenplay cast him as a true mustache twirler, a jerk who cares more about the bottom line than another man’s shattered spirit.

Schrader displays endless empathy for would-be killers, widows and lost souls. Powerful business men? They’re plum out of luck.

Nor does anyone raise a hand to say the enviro movement’s predictions have been a tad off for the past 50-odd years.

Hawke shoulders past that heavy handed approach, but in a way that suggests restraint, not For Your Consideration posing. His face is pinched with regret, displaying an outward calm that isn’t fooling those closest to him. it’s fascinating to watch Toller wrestle with his demons, to see him push away anyone who dares to connect with him on a humanistic level.

His journey is ostensibly the star of Schrader’s latest film. Those eco-talking points keep barging into the frame.

What’s worse?

Schrader’s most iconic screenplay, Taxi Driver, reveals a man’s descent into madness. It’s hard to say if Schrader sees Toller’s emotional arc as similarly desperate, or what we need now more than ever.

[Cross-posted from Hollywood in Toto.]


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Christian Toto's picture