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First Reformed
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by alejandroariera

"Losing My Religion"
5 stars

If you went by his apparently placid exterior and demeanor, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) was a good man. He diligently tends to his shrinking flock at First Reformed Church, a historic site in Albany, New York that used to be part of the Underground Railroad that transported escaped slaves from the South to the North and now has been taken over by a Megachurch. His relationship with Reverend Jeffers (Cedric Kyle, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), leader of that Megachurch is cordial; their tête-à-têtes about faith and the new generation of churchgoers are robust, full of spark. Toller is an amiable host to the small group of tourists and students that visit his church and like the country priests and doctors of times past, he pays house calls to those congregants struggling with their faith. But underneath that apparently placid exterior, underneath that friendly and slightly uncomfortable smile, lies a tortured soul. A man struggling with both physical and spiritual pain who embarks on a self-destructive journey that might, just might, lead to redemption.

Toller is not just one more in a long line of characters facing issues of faith and belonging in Paul Schrader’s oeuvre as both screenwriter and director ("Taxi Driver," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Affliction"). He’s the ne plus ultra of Schrader’s creations. And in "First Reformed," Schrader delivers something that’s becoming rare in independent American (and for that matter commercial) cinema: an intellectually challenging film, a work that forces us to listen, to observe, to question. It is that rare film where everything, including the kitchen sink, is thrown at the wall and it all sticks. It is unafraid of being stylistically austere and at the same time fly off the rails, consequences be damned. "First Reformed" is also, in a really peculiar way given the proximity of their releases (in some markets, they were even released the same week), a film that is in conversation with Wim Wenders’ new documentary "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word." But whereas the fictional Toller’s view of the world is full of angst and uncertainty, Pope Francis’ is full of conviction, his faith in the human race and in God’s love unquestionable, even as he condemns humanity’s worst habits. Toller asks whether by damaging the environment we are, in a way, sinning against God; Francis is pretty clear that we are when he exclaims at one point in Wenders’ documentary, “We have plundered her. We have abused her.”

Toller’s newest crisis of faith begins when he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried) after one of his weekly services. Recently moved to town, the pregnant Mary is married to Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who wants her to have an abortion in order to save their unborn child from a very dark future. Toller sees in Michael a kindred soul, one as tortured by doubt and despair as he is. To this date, Toller still feels guilt over the death of his son in Iraq; member of a proud military family, Toller encouraged his son to join the Army. He not only lost his son in war but he also lost his wife, who divorced him right afterwards. Michael’s despair, however, is so strong that inevitably death rears its ugly head and his suicide leaves Toller in an even deeper funk; he feels he has failed once again.

Not even the celebration of his church’s 250th anniversary, organized by Jeffers, can lift him from his doldrums, especially after he discovers that one of the event’s sponsors is the head of a regional energy company charged several times by the federal government for polluting the environment. His body is betraying him as well: not only is Toller suffering from a gastrointestinal ailment that is making him pee blood and could or could not be cancer (Schrader is marvelously elusive about this), he also self-medicates with massive amounts of alcohol. He wonders: if we are meant to protect God’s creation, why are we so keen in destroying it whether it’s the environment and our own bodies? Doesn’t stop him from self-destructing, though. And then there’s the matter of that object Mary found in her garage which will lead him to make an almost cataclysmic decision.

"First Reformed" feels like a companion piece to Scorsese’s "The Last Temptation of Christ" (for which Schrader wrote the script) and "Silence": all three films feature men (one who happens to be JC himself) questioning their faith at a specific period in history and how the world they live in affects their beliefs and answers (or not) their questions. In "Silence," Rodrigues, a young Portuguese Jesuit priest sent to Japan in search of his missing mentor, is forced to question notions of martyrdom, God’s silence and the diverse nature of faith as he is tortured into reneging his religion by his captors in 17th Century Japan. Jesus has to deal with the burden of being the son of God and of being the spiritual leader of a people who expected him to be Che Guevara. And Toller’s doubts are exacerbated by a society where church services are televised and sponsored by special interests and attended by a generation of millennials who, in the words of Jeffers, are looking for certainty.

Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan shot the film in the 1.37:1 Academy ratio, trapping the characters within this confined square-like frame; in the case of Hawke’s medium shots and close-ups, they position the camera slightly above eye-level, towering over him, as if the camera itself was a manifestation of the doubts crushing his character. There are several moments when the camera breaks away from this austere, almost oppressive style and opens up, particularly in the film’s one fantasy-like sequence involving an act of levitation and in the film’s climax where the exhilarating potential of redemption and salvation are hinted at by the looser frame.

Ethan Hawke is one of American cinema’s most consistent risk takers, whether he is working in full Hollywood mode or for the likes of such independent film stalwarts as his partner-in-crime Richard Linklater. Here he delivers one of the most nuanced, sublime complex and complete performances of his career. His gaze, his expression, his every facial twitch, is as understated and austere as the lighting and the composition. And when the camera, at the end, opens up, Hawke uses this free space to manifest the angst his character has repressed for so long. Those final moments, and the sight of an actor using every tool at his disposal, are a sight to behold. It’s cinema at its purest, rawest, undiluted form.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32065&reviewer=434
originally posted: 05/25/18 01:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  18-May-2018 (R)
  DVD: 21-Aug-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  18-May-2018
  DVD: 21-Aug-2018




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