R Dir: Paul Schrader | Lionsgate | 1h 48min
Plot: What’s it about?
“Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously. Hope and despair.”
Paul Schrader is fearless. As a screenwriter and as a director, Schrader has always veered towards darker material. In his best films he infuses that dark material with humanity in surprising ways. With the Bob Crane biography film Auto Focus, Schrader used Crane as a way of exploring sexual obsession and American values from the Sixties through the Eighties. With Affliction, Schrader drew out arguably the greatest Nick Nolte performance ever filmed. He also explored pure unadulterated evil in the character played by James Coburn. In Taxi Driver he explored the dark side of city life in New York in the Seventies – the pimps, the child prostitutes, the porno theaters – the film also focuses on neuroticism and insomnia. Scorsese made it into one of his defining films. Basically, when Schrader is good – he is incredibly good. Sometimes he misses the mark and there have been some films he has made that didn’t deserve his time. With First Reformed, Schrader has made a film that will be discussed with love or scorn depending on which things get to you in the film. It is not a film that leaves you without an opinion.
“I have decided to keep a journal. Not in a word program or digital file, but in longhand, writing every word out so that every inflection of penmanship, every word chosen, scratched out, revised, is recorded. To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. I will keep this diary for one year; 12 months. And at the end of that time, it will be destroyed.”
These opening lines introduce the viewer to the protagonist of the film, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke.) Reverend Toller has presided over a small church named First Reformed in upstate New York for a few years. His son had been killed in Iraq, so Toller went through seminary and devoted his life to preaching. He lives a pious life but struggles with alcohol abuse in his private quarters. FirHis health is also precarious. First Reformed is on the verge of celebrating its sesquicentennial. A larger church helmed by Revered Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) is handling the program and the renovations necessary to make the event a success. When a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) enlists the help of Reverend Toller with her environmental extremist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger,) Toller finds his world and world view forever changed.
I am going to give my opinion and it must be understood that my opinion is simply my own and will be disagreed with by many. I have looked at reviews and this film sets people off. For myself, I thought this movie was pretty amazing. It is becoming increasingly rare for people to discuss faith in film and literature. It is obvious that Schrader knows the philosophical struggle of somebody with faith. Schrader had gone to seminary before deciding to work as a screenwriter and he deals with spiritual matters with an uncommon sensitivity and focus. Schrader draws a line between capitalists and pious believers that will make some viewers uncomfortable. He makes this point very obvious by poising the question “Will God forgive us?” To Schrader’s characters, they struggle with whether God will forgive us for destroying his creation. I personally did not find this point of view objectionable. I found it thought provoking. The ending of the film has been criticized and I feel like it may have gone a bit farther than I would have preferred, but Schrader has been known for excess in the past. This is the same man who wrote Taxi Driver, so don’t be shocked.
Ethan Hawke hopefully will get an Oscar nod for his performance. He makes the role come to life. It is the most convincing performance in his career that spans three decades. Amanda Seyfried gives an earnest performance as Mary. She is really good in the film. Cedric the Entertainer is the biggest surprise in the film. He really holds his own. I was impressed.
This film finds Schrader drawing influence from Ingmar Bergman and Bresson. The film relies on silence and takes time to develop. When the film ends, it leaves you thinking about it for a long time after.
Video: How’s it look?
Lionsgate has done a capable job on this transfer that came from the original digital recording of the film. The film is presented in a 1.34:1 aspect ratio which means that there will be bars on both sides of the picture. While I am not a big fan of this aspect ratio, preferring wider lensed films, I don’t mind a little variety. In this case, I feel like it was Schrader’s attempt to make the film feel more intimate and humbler by limiting the vastness of the image. The effect is that the film does feel focused. The film looks pretty grey and does not utilize much color, but I personally thought it was beautifully shot overall by cinematographer Alexander Dynan. It’s a visually striking film even if some people would not consider it to be beautiful. Like other Lionsgate transfers, it is not going to let down any fans.
Audio: How’s it sound?
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track to the film is mainly an exercise in reserve. The film is more about discussions and silence than any grand mindblowing sound experience. That said, the ambient score by Brian Williams is sneakily effective – minimally used and works like a charm. The track is true to the original intent and sounds good.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Audio Commentary – Featuring Writer/Director Paul Schrader, who always delivers good tracks, this is an illuminating track chock full of information about the film. He comments on working with Hawke, the overall theme and his candid thoughts on the film’s ending.
- Discernment: Contemplating First Reformed – This short piece features interviews with Schrader, Hawke, and Cedric the Entertainer. It was interesting to know that both Hawks and Schrader had considered the priesthood. Worth your time.
The Bottom Line
First Reformed blew me away. I didn’t love the ending which went just a little further than I felt necessary, but I really enjoyed this film. It takes a lot of bravery to make a film about faith and doubt without making caricatures of the faithful. This is one of my favorite films of the year and one that I will not soon forget.
That said – rent it first! Don’t trust just my opinion on this one!