Written and Directed by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke, and Cedric Kyles.
Run Time: 1h 48min
Genre: Drama, Thriller
4 Frames out of 5
By: Shari K. Green
Okay. It starts slow but, if you’ve read my reviews before, you might know what I’m about to say… stick with it. It’s slow for a reason and that’s okay! You can’t rush art. ‘First Reformed’ is simply one of the best pictures of the year. It has been created for us for a reason. One of Hollywood’s best, Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver; American Gigolo; Affliction), has decided to make something quite exceptional that will last beyond his years. It’ll be memorable because he knew what he wanted to say and purposely set out to grab you and shake you up. You won’t soon forget what you see which, of course, is the point… he doesn’t want you to forget anything about it as it’s vital you don’t. It’s a narrative but holds so much truth and knowledge that you feel as if you’re getting schooled at the same time, but not so much so that you won’t feel the storyline that’s being playing out. Everything was well designed.
‘Will God Forgive Us?’ is a question that is posed in the film with regard to what man is doing to the environment. You don’t see this as the ultimate message coming at you when you’re first introduced to the character of Reverend Toller (Hawke) but when he agrees to counsel Michael (Ettinger) the husband of a young pregnant woman, Mary (Seyfried), Toller grows as a priest and as a man in ways he couldn’t avoid and the film changes. What Toller always knew to be true of institutions he holds in high regard comes crashing down around him when he, instead of talking, listens to what Michael is saying about man’s responsibilities toward the larger picture; Earth. Schrader set it up so you won’t miss it either.
Toller is the Reverend of a small church known more for its historical significance as being a stop along the Underground Railroad rather than its parishioners, so he finds himself salesman of its small store, more than Priest, and he’s rather bored. He journals and sips on what’s supposed to go in the chalice on Sunday’s. Counseling is an escape and he’s happy to do it but when suicide becomes Michael’s only answer to his extreme hate for living in such a cruel world, Toller picks up his cause.
Abundant Life, the larger church that keeps Toller’s afloat, is putting on a show to commemorate its being there for 250 years. Abundant Life is run by Pastor Jeffers, played exceptionally well by Cedric the Entertainer, who preaches the word of God but who cares more about what goes into the collection plate. When Toller looks into Michaels environmental research, he finds out that one of the biggest polluters of the planet sponsors Abundant Life, even the restoration of his own church, and he makes a vow to fix things. Feeling as if he failed the activist, he then becomes the activist and decides to do something for God and all mankind… as God would have wanted. Though Schrader doesn’t refer to Trump and what the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is doing to actually stop environmental causes, rather than increase or protect them, you can feel his concern for the near future of man as a species and he wants you to see what people are willing to do to save the only home we have. We all need to do more.
‘First Reformed’ is heavy on the religion but for a reason. Trust that Schrader must use this as a vehicle to get you to a certain destination… even though a few times you’re not sure where he’s going. Things go a might askew when Toller seems to be building a relationship with Mary, but it’s done in a way that, as an audience member, you can choose to see it or totally ignore it and stay within the spirit of the calculated directive. Ethan Hawke has you so mesmerized by the time you hit the halfway point that it’s easy to stay focused on the importance of the film’s objective.