Time: 135 Minutes
Age Rating: Violence, suicide & content that may disturb
Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller
Amanda Seyfried as Mary
Cedric Kyles as Pastor Jeffers
Victoria Hill as Esther
Philip Ettinger as Michael
Director: Paul Schrader
A pastor (Ethan Hawke) of a small church in upstate New York spirals out of control after a soul-shaking encounter with an unstable environmental activist (Philip Ettinger) and his pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried).
I’ve been hearing some really positive things about First Reformed for a while. Paul Schrader is known as a writer, writing the scripts for such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. However Schrader has been less successful in directing from what I can tell. One movie of his that I did watch was Dog Eat Dog which was decent but not much more than that. That cycle ended with First Reformed (which he also wrote), which is pretty great. With a great, dark and captivating script, led by an excellent performance by Ethan Hawke, First Reformed is one of the best films of the year.
First Reformed is just under 2 hours long and from start to finish it had me riveted, but you do need to know the kind of movie you’re going into. It is very slow paced and mostly consists of Ethan Hawke’s character talking to people. The comparisons to Taxi Driver are warranted and make sense (it’s not just because Paul Schrader wrote both or that both films are narrated by the main character). It’s a dark character driven story, with a dark and haunting vibe and a potentially unreliable narrator. First Reformed covers many topics, faith/religion (obviously), activism, religion in today’s society, environmentalism and much more with its main character played by Ethan Hawke. If there’s any noticeable complaint that could be made is that First Reformed tries to take on so many topics and themes, maybe too many. I’ll need to rewatch it to see if it manages to cover all of these themes successfully but from my one viewing I think it really worked. The ending is going to be something that people are going to feel divided over, because its either too insane, too unbelievable or too abrupt. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say to not take things at surface value and try to look deeper. I think I know what the implications of the ending are but I know that a lot of people are going to have different opinions about it. I personally think the ending worked very well.
Ethan Hawke is absolutely fantastic, this is his best performance of his career, and for Ethan Hawke, that is saying a lot. He’s very subtle in his performance, it’s not very showy. His character of Ernst Toller is dealing with a lot of issues (even before the movie begins) and finds himself really conflicted after meeting this one person played by Philip Ettinger. You really get to see his transition and change over the course of the movie as he goes through his journey. First Reformed is also riding a lot on Ethan Hawke, there is not a scene that Ethan Hawke isn’t in, and thankfully Hawke did a masterful job. Although the main highlight is Hawke, the other actors do quite a good job in their roles as well. Amanda Seyfried was great in her role, Philip Ettinger in his limited screentime did very well in his scenes and Cedric Kyles (also known as Cedric the Entertainer) was also really good.
Paul Schrader’s direction of First Reformed is very effective. This film is shot in 4:3, pretty much like how A Ghost Story was shot, giving it an older and intimate feel to it, it makes the whole movie feel a lot more claustrophobic. There is one trippy sequence that happens in the second half of the movie that will probably take most people out of the movie, and yes it was very bizarre but I thought it was effective. There isn’t much music, but when it’s there it’s rather subtle and adds a lot to the movie. There is a really haunting vibe that First Reformed has from start to finish and that added a lot to it.
First Reformed has already shown itself to be not for everyone, it is slow moving, it’s quite dark, it is very different and at times bizarre but it really worked for me. I might need to revisit it, but from my first viewing I thought everything about it was great. Add on top of that a career best performance from Ethan Hawke, and you’ve got yourself a fantastic film, and one of the best of 2018. I feel like I’m going to like this movie even more the more I think about it and revisit it, it does seem like it would make repeat viewings interesting.