Writer/director Paul Schrader has crafted one of the most intriguing movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found it complex, subtle, with many unexpected turns and a compelling cast. One of the year’s best, in my opinion.
Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a depressed priest who lost his only son in Iraq. Unable to pray, he pours his thoughts and feelings into a diary while drinking whisky. His church is a historical landmark with few followers, with most of the faithful preferring the local mega-church. Amanda Seyfried plays Mary, who comes to Toller concerned about her husband’s increasingly extremist beliefs and from there the film examines the modern relationship of people and their faith on one hand, and the relationships between institutions of faith and big business on the other.
I really liked the way the film depicted how at odds with the modern world religion seems to be, except for its usefulness by people with money seeking influence in a community. There is a definite sense of impending chaos and loss of shared values in the mood and character of the film, but always a lingering feeling that the worsening of the world could be largely a matter of perception. There is a particularly interesting scene between Toller and Mary about halfway thorough which sublimely transcends the gloom and alienation of the rest of the movie. There is hope, the film seems to be saying, if you just knew where to look for it. That was how I felt about it, anyway, but there is enough complexity that I’m sure many things can be taken away from it.
The film is shot in a very austere way, with cold, formalistic camera work and a very subdued palette. The score by Lustmord is perfectly supportive of the material, enhancing the mood without ever being obtrusive. Everything in the film contributes to the sense of alienation and loneliness and Ethan Hawke holds the center admirably, drawing you in and making you genuinely concerned about what’s going to happen to him. The movie deftly avoids cliché and has a really interesting ending.
I really liked First Reformed for its quiet tone, its austerity and the challenging material which really gives you a lot to think about long after the movie is over. There is a depth to the film which may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate. I found it captivating, surprising and it is definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.