Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED
A movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
Phrases like “crisis of faith” are common to reviews of this movie. While that is touched on in the movie it’s much more than that and is arguably one of the most intense studies of an individual wrestling with personal demons I’ve ever seen.
What is most impressive is how First Reformed uses real world situations including the environment, organized religion, politics, and alcoholism as a backdrop for the main character's journey through despair.
That said, what is the point of this meticulously scripted, photographed, acted, edited, and directed film?
Each serious adult viewer of this film will come away with is his or her own unique perspective. The following is my own.
The story: Rev. Ernst Toller, having suffered the death of a child and a failed marriage, is assigned to run a tiny centuries-old church in upstate New York. Once a stop for escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad, the church's tiny congregation is dwindling and the church serves as little more than a “tourist church.”
Toller, descending into alcoholism and experiencing severe personal medical problems, begins to write a personal journal to help him work through his own despair. Into his life comes a young woman, now pregnant, whose husband, an over-the-top environmental activist, thinks it’s wrong to bring another child into a decaying world.
She asks Toller to speak with her husband. He does so. The resulting conversation is the centerpiece of the film. For the first time we see Toller wrestle with another person’s beliefs while realizing he cannot do so without coming to terms with his own. The events that follow further tie Toller into the events and people that surround him, sometimes with tragic results.
This is the first film in my memory when, having just seen the film at a local theater, I wanted to get a copy of the script to read, it’s that good. I don’t think there is a lot of improvisation here. If there is, the actors and the director are remarkably synchronized, even in the small parts. Everyone is very convincing. Ethan Hawke as the main character has received much deserved praise but, really, everyone is excellent.
I’m glad that in this world of special effects laden action and superhero films it is still possible to make and see movies like First Redemption. Putting together the financing for this film given its high production values and story intensity may not have been easy. For now, though, everyone involved can be justly proud of this excellent and mature film.
Review copyright 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald