Sunday, June 10, 2018

First Reformed (2018) Review

First Reformed is not a movie that you would ever think would require a spoiler warning. There are no superheroes in it and it doesn’t end with a post-credit sequence setting up the Paul Schrader Cinematic Universe (though I would totally watch the hell out of that). Its the kind of small scale indie character-driven drama you’re likely to see in a tiny art house theater like I just did with a smattering of oldies and hipsters. Or rather, that’s how it starts, but as it gradually digs deeper into the dark, slowly deteriorating inner life of its protagonist, it builds to a climax that manages to be both shocking and surprising even as it feels like the only thing that could have happened if you were paying attention to what was being set up throughout the film. It isn’t a twist ending as such, even if it does wrap up at the diametrically opposite end from where it started, but precisely because it is so well-executed that it only seems so obvious right after you realize what’s going on, I almost don’t want to say anything else about the movie except to emphatically recommend you go see it while you can. Of course I am going to say more things, because what would the self-indulgent exercise of online film criticism be without verbosity?

First Reformed follows Reverend Toller, a former military chaplan turned small town pastor of a church with almost no congregants, financially maintained by a donor base of wealthy patrons as a local historical monument and occasional tourist attraction. Toller has been placed here as a steward and figurehead content to pass off most serious issues relating to the moral well being of his parishioners to the bigger, more corporately minded mega-church down the street. That is, until one of his flock insists that he talk to her husband, an environmental activists whose despair about the future stability of the planet has convinced him to demand his wife abort their unborn child. The reverend debates the activist in a sequence that takes up a significant portion of the first act, and that might try the patience of some viewers used to more fast paced blockbusters, but its a conversation that opens the door to an ideological and personal conflict for Toller that propels him through the rest of the film and takes him to a place that’s more than worth the slow build-up.

To be honest, slow might actually be a bit of an understatement. First Reformed is the slowest of slow burns, and your ability to fully appreciate it will almost certainly depend on how much lee-way your willing to give the film before everything comes together in the final act. Though it is otherwise a very different film, I was strangely reminded of Yorgos Lanthimos’ last movie The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, which similarly but for a completely different stylistic purpose seems to almost revel in the quiet banality of its main characters’ lives. In the first half of First Reformed you see the repetitive cycle of Toller’s daily chores, taking out the trash, fixing the toilet in the men’s room, and tending to the graveyard behind the church, and it takes a good hour or so before these simple everyday moments begin to coalesce and take on greater significance as he struggles to maintain the facade of a soft-spoken pillar of the community while his psyche is crumbling on the inside.

I obviously want to leave the specific details of his descent into darkness unspoiled, except to say that the film posits a primary character arc and ultimate conclusion that on paper would seem to be completely unbelievable, and then proceeds to justify them so completely that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else the character could have gone in retrospect, much like how Breaking Bad managed to convince you that a milquetoast highschool chemistry teacher could transform into a ruthless meth kingpin over the course of five seasons. Ethan Hawke likewise imbues his bad breaking clergyman with the quiet, smoldering intensity of a man who has suffered multiple tragedies while maintaining a Job-like adherence to his faith in God, only to lose all faith in his fellow man or in any kind of happy future for himself. Amanda Seyfried plays the wife of the environmental activist who sets Toller on his journey, ingratiating herself into his life as a source of innocence and hope to counterbalance his growing certainty that neither exists for him anymore. In the end, her presence in his life presents him a final choice of whether to reject her and complete the downward path he’s on, or let her save him from it, and while I would have preferred a more ambiguous resolution to that choice, the last shot of the film manages to provide a cathartic release for the rapidly escalating tension of the moments preceding it that I appreciated nonetheless.

In many ways, First Reformed is a movie intensely preoccupied with the concept of salvation, both in the Christian context and the more universal human one. Its about what happens when you get it, what happens when you take it for granted, and what happens when you discover its limits. Its also a powerful mediation on forgiveness, what we can and cannot forgive, and what we can and cannot be forgiven for. On another level, at least for me, it represents the salvation of its director Paul Schrader, who you may know as the writer of most of Martin Scorsese’s best movies, or as the director of some wonderfully dark and gritty films of his own like Hardcore and Auto Focus. Or you may know him as the guy who thought it was a good idea to make The Canyons, a movie with the production values of a telenovela about shallow, listless Hollywood kids starring porn actor James Dean and future porn actress Lindsey Lohan. Having not seen the two straight to VOD Nicolas Cage movies he made after that abomination, I can’t honestly say if they were any good, so I don’t know if this is a return to form for Schrader, or the continuation of an upward trend. In any case, I never thought I’d be able to forgive Paul Schrader for unleashing The Canyons into the world, but First Reformed has renewed my faith in one of my favorite director’s abilities to make good movies again, so maybe, just maybe, that means that God really is watching over us after all.

But still no, probably not. 

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