Saturday, June 16, 2018

[Review] First Reformed

Paul Schrader's latest film First Reformed is a dark, uncomfortable, and tumultuous character drama that has a lot on its mind.

Ethan Hawke plays the deeply introspective and conflicted reverend of First Reformed church in upstate New York. He keeps a nightly journal in which we hear his thoughts through poetic and self-reflective voiceover. The film follows him around as he speaks with and councils various members of the community, and things take a drastic turn when he happens upon a suicide bomber vest in the garage of a local environmental activist (Philip Ettinger).

The picture is presented in a tightly squared aspect ratio, adding a sense of focus and direct intimacy - similar to last year's existential perplexer A Ghost Story. The film displays some pristine framing and cinematography, emphasizing architectural angles and crisp symmetry. The story itself also ruminates on ideas of equal and opposing halves, constant contradictions, and ever-present dualities. Hope and despair. Duty and grace. Pride and humility. Courage and martyrdom. Forgiveness and sin. The narrative is mostly built on long and talky, face-to-face conversations, which might completely bore some audiences. But the scenes are always thematically tense, as they dive into lofty topics such as the state of the planet, future anxieties, and personal and universal plights.

Ethan Hawke is ravishingly good here, and it's one of those roles that is perfect for him. This character is multidimensional -- weary yet stoic, empathetic yet detached, haunted yet faithful. You can see it all in his face. The solid supporting cast includes a superb Amanda Seyfried, as well as Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) in a mostly straight-laced and serious part that is much different than the highly comedic roles we're so used to seeing him in.

First Reform isn't for everyone, but if you're in the mood for a commendably complicated and complex character study that doesn't offer anything easy, it's a film to witness. By the time it's over, Cedric's line rings true as a church bell: "Even a pastor needs a pastor."

( 8/10 )

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