A Quick Look At My Favorite Film Of 2018 : “First Reformed”

Posted: January 23, 2019 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

With the Oscar nominations having hit earlier the day of this writing, everybody’s talking about RomaA Star Is BornBohemian RhapsodyBlack Panther, etc. But there was a robbery committed in plain sight that seems to be going entirely unremarked-upon. I speak of the fact that writer/director Paul Schrader’s most remarkable film probably since Affliction, the criminally-underappreciated First Reformed, received precisely one nomination.

It’s in a category it could very well win, Best Original Screenplay — especially given that it won in same at the DGA Awards — but seriously : this is smart, nuanced, thought-provoking, intellectually and emotionally compelling filmmaking of the highest order, anchored by two incredibly strong central performances, pitch-perfect direction, and subtly impressive work by all and sundry behind the camera as the flick’s cinematography, musical score, editing, and production design are all in no way flashy, but essentially flawless.

So, yeah, I guess you could say I’m a little bit miffed.

For those unfamiliar with the plot particulars, Ethan Hawke exceeds any possible expectations in a stellar turn as the troubled Reverend Ernst Toller, who heads up a small upstate New York church that relies on tourism and the largesse of a neighboring “mega-church” for its survival. His house of worship is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and while he finds the celebrations commensurate with the “birthday” swiftly spinning out of his control, he’s also confronting his own crisis of faith engendered by the suicide of a disillusioned-with-existence parishoner named Michael (played by Philip Ettinger), a veteran who had fallen in with what’s derisively referred to as the “eco-terrorist” crowd after a stint in the military had run its course.

It wasn’t Michael who initially came to Rev. Toller for counseling, though, it was his pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, who, like Hawke, turns in career-defining work here), understandably conflicted with the idea of bringing new life into the world at the same that her husband seemed to be giving up on his. Mary and Toller develop a complex, multi-faceted and all-too-painfully-plausible relationship tinged with longing, desire, and a kind of mutual admiration, one shot through with with basic, elemental need for human connection with perhaps the only other person who can possibly come close to understanding their respective situations, but Toller is still struggling with the death of his son on the field of battle a good few years ago and the subsequent crumbling of his marriage, as well as his unresolved feelings for the musical director at the New Life “mega-church,” Esther (Victoria Hill). It’s a rich, thick stew of psychodrama that reveals just as much about its depth and character through the mannerisms, actions, even inaction of the principal players involved as it does by means of Schrader’s humanistic, melodrama-free dialogue.

The final ingredient, though, is certainly the most combustible and also the most tantalizing : Toller finds himself drawn toward the late Michael’s uncompromising ecological worldview, thanks in no small measure to the greedy machinations of local energy company magnate Ed Balq (Michale Gaston), who just so happens to be a major funder of New Life and a close friend of its lead pastor, Rev. Joel Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited here — appropriately, it seems to me — under his Christian name, Cedric Antonio Kyles). And guess where a whole bunch of the money for that big 250th anniversary extravaganza is coming from?

A bubbling cauldron is about to explode.

As the big day approaches, Toller finds himself going further and further off the rails, as well as deeper into the bottle, but a frightening medical diagnosis convinces him (perhaps ironically, perhaps not — it all depends on your point of view) that his path is set, his course clear, and the final act is a whirlwind of borderline-surreal storytelling and imagery that trusts viewers to make up their own minds rather than spelling things out in strict “okay, here’s what happened” terms. The ending itself has alienated some audiences and critics, it’s true, but for my money (not that I have a whole bunch), I wouldn’t have it any other way. Schrader has mapped out a trajectory for these characters and leaves it in our hands to determine exactly how they get to where they’re going. It all seems pretty damn clear to me, but I’ve read other reviews and essays on the film that posit different potential interpretations, and many make some very good points. So I’m just gonna leave it at “see it for yourself and make of it what you will,” since that seems the most honest approach to take.

And see it you definitely should. Whether on Blu-ray, DVD, or streaming on Amazon Prime, where it’s now available for members. You may not love First Reformed as unreservedly as I do, but you will be affected, and most likely impressed, by it. About the only thing I can compare it to in terms of its aesthetic sensibilities and understated-but-overwhelming emotional resonance is Ingmar Bergman’s finest work, and that’s high praise indeed coming from any quarter, I should think.

Oh, and if it doesn’t win at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, there damn well ought to be an investigation.

Comments
  1. Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

    Reblogged this on Through the Shattered Lens.

  2. I liked this movie quite a bit. It didn’t make my top 26 this year but it came very close. (I’d say it was probably something like #28 out of the 130 Oscar eligible films that I saw.) Ethan Hawke not getting a nomination for best actor is one of the few of this morning’s snubs that really upset me.

    • Ryan C. (trashfilmguru) says:

      Let’s hope it wat least wins for best original screenplay, but I think Schrader, Hawke, and Seyfriend all deserved nominations, as well.

  3. johnrieber says:

    “First Reformed” only received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, but that is a huge feat in itself considering the limited theatrical release…it will do much better at the Independent Spirit Awards, and deservedly so…kudos to Wrioter/Director Paul Schrader, who has given us many classic films in his career, going back to his brilliant script for “Taxi Driver”

  4. gary loggins says:

    At least Schrader has finally been recognized by the Academy after all these years. You’re right, it’ll be a crime if he doesn’t win.

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