Being hailed as Paul Schrader’s best film in years, First Reformed is a dark spiritual journey into the heart and soul of small town Reverend. In turn, it examines the persisting darkness and pollution (literally and physically) that plagues world.
Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, a pastor plagued with guilt over the death of his son in Iraq. He has started a journal where he vows to be completely honest at all times. After divorcing his wife, he was given the opportunity to head First Reformed church. With a small congregation and more interest as a historical tourist destination, he seems to have little responsibility.
One day Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael, with his wife a few months pregnant, can’t reconcile bringing a child into a world facing the repercussions of climate change. This leads Toller to grapple with man’s role in God’s creation. He is further tested when he discovers that his church is funded by one of the leading polluters in the U.S. Battling personal illness and diminishing hope, Toller’s journey culminates at the 250th anniversary of his church.
The performances in this film are top notch all around. Hawke has always been underrated in my opinion. Seyfried delivers a deeply emotional performance as a distraught wife and soon to be mother. Even Cedric The Entertainer, who is the pastor of Abundant Life Church (owners of First Reformed), gives an excellent performance in maybe his only exclusively dramatic role.
The philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the film are infinitely fascinating and explored in depth. Where some religious films may gloss over contradiction, doubt, and darkness, First Reformed dives in head first and never relents. This is further exemplified by excellent cinematography, lighting, and limited use of music.
My biggest complaint deals with one particular scene. To avoid extensive explanation or any possible spoilers, I will simply say that there is a use of CGI, green screen, or some other backdrop producer that really took me out of the film temporarily. Anyone who sees the film will likely know what I’m referring to. There were also a few minor instances in which dialogue delivery was unconvincing, though that was very limited.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed First Reformed. I did not watch any trailers beforehand so I was completely uninfluenced going into the theater. I anticipate rewatching this film when it comes to DVD or digital streaming. The themes will continue to keep me contemplating life, spirituality, and hope.