FIRST REFORMED (2018)

Review by LL Soares

A movie about faith and climate change activism doesn’t sound like something I’d normally run to see, but FIRST REFORMED was bound to present these themes in a compelling way, since the movie is directed by Paul Schrader.

Schrader is a seasoned pro, having written the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976) RAGING BULL (1980), and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988). As writer/director, he’s given us BLUE COLLAR (1978), HARDCORE (1979), MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985), LIGHT SLEEPER (1992), AFFLICTION (1997) and AUTO FOCUS (2002). He’s something of a cinematic legend, and while not all of his films have been successful (his 2013 film, THE CANYONS, for example, starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, with a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, was a flop, but I have to admit, I still found it fascinating), a new Schrader film is usually something to get excited about. Unfortunately, I didn’t see FIRST REFORMED in a theater when it came out, but it is streaming now on Netflix, and I made sure to correct my mistake in missing it.

The movie has also been getting a ton of praise since its release earlier this year, and there’s even been some Oscar buzz for the movie and its star, Ethan Hawke (BEFORE SUNRISE, 1995, TRAINING DAY, 2001,  SINISTER, 2012, and THE PURGE, 2013).

Hawke plays Reverend Enrst Toller, who is the pastor of the small, historical First Reformed Church. His congregation is small, and the church is owned by a much larger mega-church, run by Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, of THE ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY, 2000, BARBERSHOP, 2002, and lots of TV shows, here billed as Cedric Kyles), who heads his church, Abundant Life, like a business. Chances are the First Reformed Church would have closed a long time ago, since it’s really not adding to Abundant Life’s flock, but its history makes it important.

One day, one of Toller’s parishoners, Mary Mansana (Amanda Seyfried, JENNIFER’S BODY, 2009, CHLOE, 2009, LOVELACE, 2013, and LES MISERABLES, 2012), comes to him asking for help. She is worried about her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger, COMPLIANCE, 2012, and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, 2017), who is an environmental activist, who is becoming more and more obsessed with his cause. Michael doesn’t want to have kids with Mary, because he doesn’t want to bring anyone into a world where climate change is going to have a big, negative effect on the future.

Toller goes to talk to Michael, and they talk a long time. They really seem to hit it off, but it seems that the talk did little to change Michael’s mind. A frantic Mary even contacts the pastor at one point to come to her house and see a suicide vest that Michael had assembled, that was hidden in the garage.

Toller hopes he can get through to Michael, but this becomes impossible when the man asks the pastor to meet him somewhere, and Toller finds that he has committed suicide.

Meanwhile, the First Reformed Church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and there is a big event planned, that will be simulcast from the church to Abdundant Life, and which is being funded by local businessman Edward Balq (Michael Gaston, BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015, and THE LEFTOVERS, 2014 – 2017) a billionaire who has made his money in fossil fuels, but who likes to appear to be a philanthropist. At a lunch with Revered Jeffers and Mr. Balq, Toller learns that Balq is exactly the kind of person that Michael was fighting against, which disturbs him.

Toller has been reading articles about global warming on the kinds of sites Michael frequented and is becoming more and more concerned about the future of the planet himself, thus sharing Michael’s fear for the future. At the same time, he is getting close to Michael’s widow, Mary, and also learns that he is ill, and it might possibly be cancer. Which all gives him a lot to think about.

FIRST REFORMED is fascinating because it gets to the root of faith, as opposed to organized religion, as Toller begins to question if the church is able to deal with a threat such as climate change, and if it isn’t, then what can he do as one man to save the planet that God has entrusted to mankind.

It is a compelling film, fueled by Ethan Hawke’s intense performance as Toller. The rest of the cast is also very good, including Seyfried as the conflicted Mary, and Cedric the Entertainer, who has impressed me in a variety of roles lately (from comedy to drama), and who is very effective as Reverend Jeffries. FIRST REFORMED is a powerful film that actually makes you ponder these questions yourself, and invest in feelings of what we can do to save our world (along with Reverend Toller).

I hope this film does get some Oscar nominations, because it deserves it. Schrader has made one of the best films of his career, and Hawke has delivered an electrifying performance. Despite its unusual topic, the film transcends its plot to have a deeper resonance.

I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives FIRST REFORMED ~ 4 knives.

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