Traumatic Faith: Our Review of ‘First Reformed’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - June 01, 2018
Traumatic Faith: Our Review of ‘First Reformed’

It’s unavoidable that the sins of the past; play apart in defining who we are in the present…

Despite some missteps along the way, the career of one Paul Schrader is an often forgotten one outside some of the more obvious credits to his name but with First Reformed we are reminded how special it is when certain talents actually get it right and give us something worth discussing long after the credits have rolled as we truly dive into what it means to be a tortured soul.

The quiet life is exactly what Reverend Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) wants and as the solitary middle aged parish pastor at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary, that’s pretty much what he gets.  With the church (also once a stop on the Underground Railroad) now a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation it is eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock. However, when a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist, the clergyman finds himself plunged into his own tormented past, and equally despairing future, until he finds redemption in an act of grandiose violence that matches his ever mounting rage towards the world around him.

To put it simply, First Reformed is a special film.  Rarely do we get something that so effectively and intelligently looks at issues of faith and how they are very often incompatible with the realities of the modern world and how hard it is to stay faithful to even belief in oneself.

I suspect that this film came exactly when it was supposed to it as it is the kind of story that really does feel like it comes with not only age and wisdom, but frustration and a little bit of anger as well.  Paul Schrader gives us a man losing faith, and for once we get something that is upsetting and hard to look at rather than a philosophical debate, or to put it accurately ‘as well’.  Mirroring the wavering faith of Pastor Toller with the on-going struggles and arguments of environmentalism craft a really interesting dynamic and how interpretations of faith can get applied to real life issues.  And as with all things in life, sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t.  Schrader gives equal time to shining a light on what good religion can do but also with the myriad of conflicts that come with it in day to day life.  This is part of the conflict that is causing our pastor to truly unravel.

Ignoring the credo of ‘Every pastor needs a pastor’, Ethan Hawke delivers one of the performances of his career as we see this man breaking before our very eyes.  He’s having the debates in his own head and trying to live life as he sees it but he can’t break from his anger and the need for him to be cleansed of all the trauma in his life because physically overwhelming to him.  His grief and pain are quite literally eating him alive…and he knows it. 

Credit both Hawke and Schrader for not being afraid to get a little weird at times, as it lifts all the right themes from other films like Diary of a Catholic Priest while sprinkling in some familiar allegories and even taking the extreme of an The Exorcist or Altered States.  This film is in many ways a horror film, but about the horrors of humanity that human race subjects itself too far too often.  Hawke gives us the trauma of a man on the brink, who knows he needs to find his way back from the abyss, in any way that he can.

If this is ultimately the culmination of a lifetime of work, then I am OK with that because the real brilliance of First Reformed is its willingness to show a man, warts and all, struggle with his own nature and the traumas of his past that he’s just been unable to shake in any meaningful way.

It’ll get forgotten around the awards season, which is unfortunate but not shocking because in spite of more than a few uncomfortable moments, this ranks among some of the finer works we’ve ever seen from both Ethan Hawke and writer/director Paul Schrader.

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David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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