Movie Reviews: First Reformed (2018)

When people point to critic ratings scaring away audiences from certain films, I am quick to point out how many films I wouldn’t have ared see if it wasn’t for their reputation.  A couple weeks ago we took a look at a film centering on Orthodox Judaism, and dealing with that felt thorny enough without even considering the accuracy of the portrayal.  Now we head back to the more familiar confines to film of Protestantism and while I can’t say I was rushing to head back to religion on film, at least I have some more familiarity here (still not going to comment on level of accuracy regardless).

In addition, the people behind involved in this film hardly inspired confidence.  We are a long way from when writer/director Paul Schrader’s name was considered a positive on a film.  Back when he was writing films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull or directing films such as Blue Collar and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.  Even in his prime his output was scattershot and that was before he was directing late period glorified Direct to DVD Lindsay Lohan and Nicolas Cage movies.  In addition, his two most notable dabblings with religion in film were the massively disappointing The Last Temptation of Christ (written only) and the forgettable Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (directed only).  I also can’t really call myself a huge fan of the talent on screen as I’ve never been an Ethan Hawke fan, Amanda Seyfried’s career is a remarkably good inverse indicator of quality and casting Cedric the Entertainer (sorry Cedric Kyles) as the head of a megachurch offers so much opportunity for scenery chewing.

Set in a historic New York church with sparse attendance, essentially a quiet tourist attraction anymore, Hawke plays a reverend minding the shop.  He does his duties fine, but for the most part, he just defers the nearby megachurch which along with a prominent industry donor (played by Jericho‘s Michael Gaston) sustains his church and lives out his life mostly in solitude.  But he’s clearly suffering, partly from his tragic backstory and more specifically from an ailment that becomes obvious the first time he coughs in church.  He self medicates with booze, and manages to get by largely unnoticed by all but one friendly worker at the megachurch.  He gets a purpose though in the form of a pregnant Seyfried who tasks him with talking with her enviromental activist husband who is lost and angry and seeing no hope for the future after a stint in jail and with no environmental fixes in the future.

It’s from these calm, reserved roots, that the story and more specifically the reverend eventually starts to grow out of control.  The disease worsening and that cause seeming more compelling as he starts to wrestle with man’s duty to Earth and his role in life.  He draws a mixture of concern from most everyone and ire in the case of the donor with his sudden dip into “politics” as we march towards the big 250th anniversary ceremony.  In terms of insights, let’s just say that it isn’t very deep which is understandable considering the characters involved, but the film does some decent surface level work comparing the more humanist reverend with the “shut up and mind the shop” conservative donor with the pragmatic but well meaning megachurch pastor in the middle.

It’s also probably the most positive portrayal of a pastor of a megachurch you will see (including in films where they are supposed to be the good guys), with Kyles surprisingly and thankfully toning down his usual schtick to portray someone who genuinely believes he can do good work in his position despite the compromises and that the awful youngsters who show up to the church groups just need to be shown an example and let to discover their own way.  Hawke and Seyfried are surprisingly good as well.  Hawke is a compelling subject both in the quiet beginning and even as the film threatens to spiral away from him by the end and I appreciated the dark humor that would occasionally pop up with him.  Seyfried as well takes what could be a generic indie role and makes her feel like an actual human being.

That’s not to say everything works.  The journal, narration device walks a thin line between overblown and reflexively so and being overly reflexive about such themes being discussed.  In fact, the intellectual conversations and thematic consideration become increasingly blunt as the film goes on.  It’s understandable considering the mental state of the lead, but it also makes for a far less interesting film.  There were also a number of moments that threatened to set off my pretentious bullshit meter and even hours after seeing the film, I still have not come down on whether or not I like them or not.  I know for sure there is a subset of people who are going to be put off by it (including the only other two people in the theater with me) and frankly I can’t blame them, but to me, it just came across as someone consciously trying a bit too hard to be weird or provocative and succeeding at neither.

I opened this up with a reference to the recent release of Disobedience, but the closer comparison is another recently released film, Hereditary.  Both films are far more interesting and compelling in their early goings before they change things up and lean more into the madness.  Madness that they had both foreshadowed the entire time, but still a distinct change.  That change here feels far more seamless in genre and does far less to undermine the film as a whole, but it’s also not nearly compelling.  They are also both really beautifully shot films even if done in two completely different manners, here favoring a far more washed out look.    It’s a great film and Schrader’s best written work in decades and probably his best directed work ever.