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'First Reformed': An Inconvenient Proof
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
08:21PM / Thursday, June 21, 2018
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It is unfortunate. But it only makes complete sense that Paul Schrader's dark and starkly truthful "First Reformed" will be one of 2018's most important movies. Whether or not you like its profoundly intense take on current events and how that intersects with the crisis of conscience Ethan Hawke's Reverend Ernst Toller is experiencing, the film is representative of its time.
Unlike in the Great Depression, when cheerful movies tried to paste things over until happy times were here again, this intense, artistic muckrake dives headlong into the tribulation. But expect no answers as we witness Reverend Toller navigate the whims, wiles and sometimes disingenuous perpetrations that attend the approaching, 250th-anniversary celebration of his little, antique-status church in Snowbridge, N.Y. Rather, perhaps so as to not turn off those who would on first blush be opposed to rummaging in its controversial themes, Schrader personalizes the big issues, and thus engages the viewer to tangentially arrive at his or her own conclusion. Folks are much more apt to experience revelation if they think it's their own idea.
To the backdrop of a small town where the historical church is proffered as its image, but where the bulk of its citizens attend the big, new-age Abundant Life Church headed by Cedric the Entertainer's Pastor Jeffers, Toller wrestles with how rationalization threatens human piety. He keeps a journal, introduced in the prologue, a keeping score of the perennial war between sin and a virtue that he fears is losing, quite frankly, its virtue. Arduously, studiously, Reverend Toller's travail is a microcosm of that age-old battle between the forces of light and darkness.
Then, taking it a step further, through subtle dabs of reality and the beneficence that can be achieved when art is nobly wielded in the service of humankind, the reverend's ruminations are suddenly interwoven with nearly every trouble that befalls our civilization. It's often painful to witness, the heatedly visceral deductions, a cold splash in the face reminiscent of the rebuke issued by Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan R. Jessep in "A Few Good Men" (1992): "You can't handle the truth!" Thus, if you're paying attention, auteur Schrader throws down the gauntlet.
Rendering it even more searing and certain to make you wish your seat could adjust to the inevitable fidgetiness, the good reverend is not well. And Hawke, working scenes that you can expect to see at next year's Academy Awards, exasperates us in Toller's laxity to address his illness. There are folks like that, a true-to-life disregard that further cements the movie's mission, which, we surmise, is not simply to discern the truth, but to reestablish it as humanity's single most important building block.
Indeed, rigorous stuff, replete with many minutes of thoughtful reflection as the reverend, glass of whiskey at hand, makes entries into his journal, which he has vowed will be destroyed after one year. Add to this some tense moments of equally weighty dialogue as he tries at the behest of Mary, a troubled parishioner exquisitely played by Amanda Seyfried, to address husband Michael's desire to have her pregnancy terminated. But if seeking the company of someone who would normally be averse to imbibing such stressful fare, you could also say this is a love story.
Yep, people have all sorts of crazy, dysfunctional and/or challenged relationships, and fact is stranger than fiction. So here's that authenticity factor again. It's a recurring theme, replete with an abrupt, closing scene I should have expected from this neo-art house dissertation. It is intent on underlining that there are no pie-in-the-sky solutions to our dilemmas. And so, when something really bad happens at about the one-third mark, our moral tote board begins recalculating frantically.
Thrown for a bit of a loop, we wonder if we've categorized everyone accurately. Take the reverend for instance: We want to think he's righteous — that his very being is proof of absolute good both in this life and beyond — something to hang our hopes on amidst the rampant prevarication besmirching our landscape. As Hawke's Toller tries to figure it out, he beckons us into his tortured, theological conundrum. Respecting the zeal, we must follow. Look at us, being oh so smart. No aliens, cyborgs or personae from make-believe worlds.
In short, welcome to Philosophy 101, where the hypotheses are tossed hither and thither and, where, by semester's end, you'll know how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. At the root, it's rather simple, what we've been trying to understand almost since the world's opening day. It's Good vs. Evil and Faith vs. Despair, a double bill now playing at the "First Reformed."
"First Reformed," rated R, is an A24 release directed by Paul Schrader and stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer). Running time: 113 minutes
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