Review: First Reformed (2017)


Reviewed by: Justin Rumenapp
@The_Ill_Phantom

First Reformed finds writer-director Paul Schrader revisiting his "man in the room" scenario. Films in this thematic collection feature lonely, alienated men narrating their life stories via diary entries. "Man in the room" films include Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper and The Walker.

Here, the alienated man is a clergy member grieving over the loss of his son. Reverend Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, presides over the First Reformed Church, which is more of a historical landmark than an active faith community. It is only through the patronage of a nearby megachurch that the First Reformed remains open. Pastor Jeffers, portrayed in a stellar performance by Cedric "the Entertainer" Kyles, leads the megachurch. Jeffers encourages Toller to be more active in the "home church," rather than live like a self-exiled monk. The two men stand in stark contrast to each other. Toller seems to believe that suffering is the key to salvation and studies theology. Jeffers is a gregarious man who thrives on the limelight. While Toller may be the more somber student of religion, it is only through Jeffers' financing that his lifestyle is even possible. One can't help but wonder if a middle ground could have been found between the two.

Amid his weariness, the only parishioner who invigorates Toller is Mary, played Amanda Seyfried. She asks Toller to council her morose husband who seemingly has lost the will to live after failing to make any lasting impact on environmental issues. If Jeffers contrasts Toller, Toller and the husband are mirror images of one another.

Like, all of Schrader's man in the room protagonists, Toller becomes increasingly agitated and self-loathing as the film proceeds. He wants enlightenment not only for himself, but in his ego, he desires salvation for all of creation. As Toller becomes increasingly drawn into environmentalist causes, the film raises serious questions about how to attend to a religious congregation in a hyper-partisan world. While Toller feels invigorated about talking about stewardship toward the planet (and political causes), parishioners who are looking for a place to call home might be alienated by political topics. Though the film is explicit in using environmentalism as an example, any political issue and the teachings of Christ could easily be substituted.

The film was captured in academy ratio, which most viewers will recognize as "full screen." This choice, along with beautifully lit tableaus of Hawke's face, evokes black and white films of yore. Musician Lustmord provides an ominous, ambient soundscape, which is punctuated through the addition of various choir songs. 

Overall, this is a rewarding film worthy of discussion with friends and cineastes, even it it moves along at a glacial pace. Though the film is a stylistic departure from Schrader's sleazy 2016 film Dog Eat Dog, First Reformed very much fits in with his career long examination of self-destructive men.


FIRST REFORMED
VERSION: Film Festival Screening
DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader
SCREENPLAY BY: Paul Schrader
STARRING: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles

(C) 2018

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