Thursday, December 13, 2018

First Reformed


Paul Schrader wears his Bresson and Bergman influences on his sleeve with this one, and the result is a tone appropriately austere. Filmed in the Academy ratio, every shot is beautiful and compact—from the great opening tracking shot, to scenes of characters just sitting inside and talking, to the harsh, cold Northeastern exteriors that match the harsh, cold interiors of the church. Ethan Hawke’s amazing performance as Reverend Toller might just be the performance of the year (and one of the of his career). The juxtaposition of Toller (a Thomas Merton type who wonders why the church isn’t frontline stewards on issues like climate change) and his boss (a wonderful Cedric the Entertainer, who plays an aspiring Televangelist that wrestlers with the role of the church in an ever-changing, more extreme 21 st century) so were some of my favorite moments because Schrader doesn’t resort to cheap tactics that make Toller seem out of touch or make his boss seem inconsiderate of his conflict. There’s more to FIRST REFORMED than that dynamic, though, as a certain event acts as the catalyst for Toller thinking this way, and Schrader uses the framework of a thriller (there have been many comparisons to Schrader’s own TAXI DRIVER) to tell its story. And it’s a great conceit by Schrader to frame his film this way because from the film’s opening moments, I couldn’t look away. There’s nothing “fun” about this movie in the way that a lot of thrillers are “fun” but FIRST REFORMED—despite its minimalist approach—really moves through its story with a tremendous amount of momentum that filled me with a lot of anxiety as we watch Toller deal with his numerous conflicts (internal and external). I couldn’t take my eyes off of what was happening, and I know I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time. I can’t go full four stars, though, because of that ending (even though I really like the abrupt cut).


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