First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017): USA | UK | Australia

Reviewed by Jackson Davis. Viewed at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

First Reformed is simply a fascinating film. Director Paul Schrader does an excellent job of portraying a mans decent into emptiness and despair, and the actions they take while at their lowest. Multiple times throughout the film, we are asked who can know the will of God, and suggests that attempts to answer that question lead us to extreme conclusions.

[The righteous] cry, and the LORD heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles.

The story follows Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) and his journey to find meaning in his life. Toller’s son, who he convinced to enlist in the Iraq War, was killed in action also ending his marriage as a result. Toller looked to redeem himself in in the eyes of others, and God. We earn that up unto this point, he had been filling his empty life with the only things he could: Prayer and lots of booze. Almost as if by a miracle, meaning comes into his life. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is concerned with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who doesn’t want to have their baby because he doesn’t want to bring it into a dead/dying world. Toller’s attempts to deliver Michael from the black abyss of despair he’s in prove fruitless, as when Toller and Mary discover Michael’s suicide vest, leading Michael to commit suicide by shotgun, Toller finds himself both comforting Mary, and secretly taking up Michael’s cause. Toller describes a feeling of renewed clarity as he has found purpose again.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

It turns out Toller has fallen for the same ideology Michael thought could fill his own emptiness. What follows is Toller’s struggle through his days as he juggles his newfound purpose, becoming more and more radicalized. Rather than taking his ideology and learning from it and incorporating it into his worldview, he starts to become become his ideology. He quotes environmental facts verbatim to friends, and even experiences a “magic mystery tour” (a silly and cheap looking green-screen sequence), which he quickly turns very dark from lighthearted. While all this seems absurd, taken through the eyes of Toller, they become rational as he, like many radicalized people, take their cause very seriously. This seems weird to the audience, but not to him.

Moving beyond First Reformed’s story, most other aspects of it were spectacular. While many scenes, especially toward the end, could’ve used a bit more flair, Schrader’s cinematography, color pallet, and consistent and minimalist set design do an amazing job of connecting the audience with the broken protagonist.

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