Starring-Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried
Scott’s Review #870
Reviewed February 22, 2019
First Reformed (2018) is a dark independent film that has received a great deal of buzz for the raw and daring risks it takes and the brave performance by the film’s star, Ethan Hawke. Directed by the same man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976), Paul Schrader, the film is a character study of one man’s efforts for benevolence and normalcy after experiencing insurmountable tragedy as he wrestles with his demons and questions his faith in the church. The film is heavy, raw drama and not for those in the mood for a feel-good experience.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) is an alcoholic, residing in bleak and barren upstate New York, presumably near Buffalo. He serves as a Protestant minister at a historically significant yet sparsely populated church. The establishment is usurped by another more modern congregation with a robust following. Ernst has recently been dealt a major blow with the death of his son in the Iraq War after encouraging him to enlist. When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, asks Ernst to provide guidance to her radical and troubled husband, Ernst’s life spirals out of control.
Ernst is determined to keep a journal for exactly one year and then subsequently burn it. He chronicles his feelings, thoughts, and doubts as narrated by Hawke. Schrader, who directed and wrote First Reformed succeeds at making the film feel personal and conflicted. He creates a quiet experience masked with underlying turmoil and even suffocating existences. Ernst’s angry protege is an environmentalist determined to change the minister’s views and succeeds in pointing out life’s hypocrisy.
The season is winter, and the elements are cold and depressing in First Reformed. From the crisp air and clutching small town grasps, Schrader makes the audience feel stifled, so we relate to Ernst even though we may not share his views or his beliefs. He is a kind man, helpful, and even keeled but wrestles with constant demons. Despite his role as a minister what the film does well is resist carving a traditional tale of religious conflict or even questioning Ernst’s sexuality. The film is much darker contextually and does not focus on one theme.
Where Schrader loses me is with Ernst’s questionable actions which sometimes come out of left field. The conclusion is both perplexing and unsatisfying. As the character prepares for a desperate act of brutality, certainly a shock for the audience who has him figured out, he suddenly changes course due to the appearance of Mary. They embrace, and the film ends, but what are his intentions towards Mary? He is fond of her, but are feelings pure friendship or something more emotional? Sadly, we never find out nor do we know where he channels all of his feelings from.
Besides Ernst, and Hawke’s dynamic portrayal of him is never better, the supporting character’s lack much appeal or interest. Mary is nice enough but is a tad clingy and her numerous requests to talk or have Ernst come by to visit get tedious- Seyfried does what she can with the role but is second banana. Cedric the Entertainer as Pastor Joel Jeffers lacks appeal and the dowdy character of Esther meant to be a potential love interest for Ernst is instead bothersome and portrayed as a pest.
First Reformed (2018) has shades of appeal and a main character with substance and depth but ultimately the film does not come together as well as it might have. The finale underwhelms and after the great buildup to the character’s changing thoughts and motivations too much was left unclear. Schrader deserves props for attempting to create an edgy experience with a unique and daring character but could have wrapped the film up in a tidier way. This would have served the film better.