Wednesday, June 6, 2018

First Reformed

★★★★★ - A Review by Cameron Kanachki

I was baptized & raised Catholic. During the early years of my childhood, I went to church every Sunday. I also went to Catechism every Tuesday. However, around the age of 10, I became less inclined with the Church & had less of a desire to go to Church. By the age of 14, I had almost completely stopped going to church. Lately, I have become more interested in theology, & have begun to admire the church again. However, I am still somewhat going through a crisis of faith.

First Reformed is a film that I didn't think Paul Schrader had left in him. It's a film that I didn't think would've shook me to my very core. And it's a film that I didn't think would end up being the best film of the year so far. But all 3 of those thoughts were false. It has become the best film of 2018 so far. The film follows Rev. Ernst Toller (played by Ethan Hawke), the pastor at First Reformed Church in Upstate New York. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, & now quickly approaching its 250th anniversary reconsecration, the church has become almost completely desolate. The organ is broken, & barely 10 people attend every Sunday, as almost the entire flock has gone over to Abundant Life, the nearby megachurch led by Rev. Joel Jeffers (played by Cedric Kyles, AKA Cedric The Entertainer), with the 5,000 people in its flock being attracted by its vast acreage & state-of-the-art bells & whistles. Jeffers has taken the liberty of organizing the reconsecration ceremony, while industrial head Edward Balq (played by Michael Gaston) funnels the money for the ceremony.

Toller, a former military chaplain, has suffered a lot in recent times. His son, who he encouraged to follow in the family tradition of joining the military, was killed in Iraq 6 months after he enlisted. Soon after, his wife, unable to love him after that, divorced him. Also, he has just ended an affair with Esther (played by Victoria Hill), who works at Abundant Life. And now, Toller has become increasingly ill, drowning his pain in alcohol every night. Toller decides to write a journal, detailing all of his thoughts during every single day of his life for the following 12 months, & at that time, it will be destroyed.

One Sunday, after church, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried), one of the few parishioners at First Reformed, asks Toller to counsel her radical environmentalist husband, Michael (played by Philip Ettinger), who has just been released from prison in Canada. Michael has asked Mary, who is pregnant, to have an abortion, as he feels it would be horrible to bring a child into a world that is on the brink of destruction. However, Mary wants to have the child. Michael explains to Toller how the world is becoming grossly overtaken by irreversible climate change that he says, along with opportunistic disease, famine, anarchy & martial law, will occur not only in their child's lifetime, but in Toller's lifetime.

Toller is shaken by this conversation with Michael. This sends him into a crisis of faith, leading him to begin to take decisive action, much to the horror of Jeffers & Balq. But as the 250th anniversary consecration gets closer, Toller finds himself falling deeper & deeper into a pit of despair.

The cast is spectacular. Ethan Hawke gives what is easily the greatest performance of his career & of this year. Hawke's performance is very nuanced & raw, excellently depicting the crisis of faith that so many go through. Amanda Seyfried also gives an excellent performance, finally showing that she can actually act. And Cedric Kyles also does a great job, showing a knack for the dramatic after doing so many comedic roles.

Paul Schrader's direction is phenomenal. After having directed some absolute duds over the past several years (The Canyons, The Dying of the Light & Dog Eat Dog), Schrader has finally made a return to form that hasn't been seen since his 1997 film Affliction. Schrader takes many cues from both some of his favorite directors (Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Ingmar Bergman & Carl Theodor Dreyer) & his strict Calvinist upbringing to make the film into a brutal, & at times, horrifying, look at what we're doing to our world & what some people have made their belief in God to be.

Paul Schrader's screenplay is amazing. The plot is one of the most intriguing plots in recent history, the characters are fully fleshed out, & the dialogue is nothing short of fantastic. Also, the screenplay has many similarities to Schrader's script for Taxi Driver (which I have finally watched this past weekend & completely loved it), with the themes & style being the most prevalent similarities. I find this film's script to be just as excellent as Taxi Driver's script.

Alexander Dynan's cinematography is astounding. Shot in the classic Academy ratio (another homage to some of Schrader's favorite directors), the shots feel more intimate & compact. Also, the camerawork is extremely dominated by one color: white, obviously representing the purity & cleanliness of God.

Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.'s editing is excellent. Rodriguez Jr. keeps the film at a slow pace, letting the film slowly unfold before us.

And Lustmord's score is haunting. The score is powered by ominous bass sounds, adding to the dark feeling of the film.

This is one of the best films of the century so far. Along with a career-best performance from Ethan Hawke, it is a return to form for Paul Schrader, & a terrifying portrayal of faith & the terrors our world faces today & will continue to face.

First Reformed was seen by me at the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, MI on Friday, June 1, 2018. It is currently in 1 theater in the Detroit area: the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, MI; it will expand to more theaters starting Friday, June 8, 2018. Its runtime is 113 minutes, & it is rated R for some disturbing violent images.

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