“First Reformed” was written and directed by Paul Schrader and stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer. The film is about a pastor of a historic church that is faced with inner conflict once he meets with a woman’s husband struggling with his own demons.
This is an A24 film, so immediately it captured my attention, as did it’s incredibly intriguing trailer. This looked to be a very new role for Hawke to take, and Schrader is one of the greatest writers (“Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver”) ever, so I was very excited to see what he could do with something in his wheelhouse: inner struggle.
Hawke has had some truly great performances over the years, and his turn here is truly one of them. Hawke consistently and relentlessly takes over this movie with a remarkable performance as Pastor Toller. He is a clearly depressed, beaten down man, but Hawke plays the part with such subtlety and with incredible precision that it feels like there are a dozen layers under every word he speaks.
The camerawork used in this movie is something to behold, as cinematographer Alexander Dynan uses a perfectly still shot in almost every scene, and it creates some gorgeous moments of symmetry, asymmetry and juxtaposition. The shots feel like pieces of art, and they allow the focus to stick on the characters at every turn.
Schrader did a terrific job with the direction and script of this movie, as it truly feels like a modern-day version of “Taxi Driver” at multiple points with it’s dark and often scary depiction of a man with so much inner pain. The way Schrader uses diary entries is brilliant, and he does such an outstanding job with creating a character with clear internal thoughts and emotions that don’t always reach the surface.
This film, a lot like A24’s other film in theaters, “Hereditary,” deals a lot with themes of grief and loss, but unlike that horror film, this one focuses on it with other themes like global warming and religion’s role in society, and it makes for some very compelling conflict-of-interest moments. This is a movie that is smart with how it uses these big, polarizing ideas, and it all leads to a final act that is consistently tense from the unknown and a lingering sense of dread.
However, unlike “Hereditary,” this film often had me craving for more, but it never full gave me it. There are so many long pieces of this film that, while beautifully shot and well acted, never feel like they amount to anything greater within the story. This is a movie built on feeling a little off at all times, but I wish that more scenes felt like they were going somewhere instead of just being strange to be strange.
Seyfried gives a strong performance in the film, but I wish her character was more involved and more interesting than what we are given here. Sure, she has some moments that peaked my interest, but for the most part, her character felt all too plain to make me care about whenever she was on screen.
The finale, while bold and unexpected, felt a little lackluster to what I had wanted. There are so many great pieces leading up to it, but when the film ended, I was left wanting more, and not in a good way.
“First Reformed” is a well-directed film and has one of the performances of the year from Hawke, but didn’t quite grab me as much as I had hoped. This is a brilliantly unique film in its style and plot, and I give it a lot of credit in that respect, even if I felt slightly underwhelmed by the time the credits rolled.