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"First Reformed" Preaches the Bad News

"There’s a kernel of an interesting religious film in First Reformed, the new arthouse release from writer-director Paul Schrader (Mishima, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ). Unfortunately, it’s buried underneath the grim weight of the terrorist fantasy that Schrader really wants to explore.

The film stars Ethan Hawke as a tortured Protestant reverend slowly killing himself with alcohol and self-neglect. His manly grimacing may net him an Oscar; it’s the sort of intense, agonized performance that the Academy loves to reward. But is there something there? That is, are Schrader and Hawke getting at a truth about God or man by putting Reverend Ernst Toller through the wringer? Or are they mostly demonstrating how little spiritual insight there is to be gleaned from the vigilante antihero genre?

Early scenes lull us into a false hope. We get a glimpse into Toller’s life in a fascinating subdomain of Protestant Christendom. He’s the lonely pastor of a historic outpost church in upstate New York, a Dutch Reformed building purchased and preserved by a nondenominational megachurch called Abundant Life. Toller exists on the outskirts of Abundant Life, which has its own drama of youth groups, remote-streamed services, and deep-pocketed big-business donors. At First Reformed he preaches to a sparse flock and shows tourists around the landmark building, hawking hats from their sad gift shop. We see portraits of the previous pastors of First Reformed, and Toller’s immediate predecessors are wearing suits and ties. Toller himself is in clericals. Does he have more traditionalist leanings than the church he’s landed in? Or is he ruefully nodding to how the place makes him feel like a museum piece?

Toller is largely unpastored himself, partly by choice. We see Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life (Cedric the Entertainer, embracing a more serious persona) ask Toller about his physical and emotional health and get stonewalled. Toller lives in furniture-less austerity, perhaps as some kind of self-imposed penance for a past that includes a dead son and a broken marriage. He’s taken aback when a pregnant congregant named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her husband, who doesn’t want her to keep their baby. A man who sees little enough to live for in his own life is called, just by virtue of the collar he wears, to make the case for life. It’s an interestingly intimate narrative setup, grounded, in some ways, in the hypervisibility of religious life. Then it all gets blown to hell as we discover the true subject of the film. First Reformed is a movie about jihad."

Ethan Hawke in "First Reformed"

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