Chew's Reviews - First Reformed

By Gary Chew  | June 8, 2018 

Opens today |  

Seeing Paul Schrader's latest film, “First Reformed” can be a learning experience. It was for me. It allows a person, who's disinclined to violence (as myself), to understand how another human being can finally get to a point where doing great harm to others, most of them innocent, seems to be the only remedy for something gone wrong. This appreciation applies to whatever political stripe or religious conviction held by the person who, by seeing the film, says to him or herself, “Oh, that's how a suicide-bomber can actually do such a horrific thing in a crowd of innocent bystanders!”

Ethan Hawke's character is a mid-forties parish pastor of a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York.  Reverend Ernst Toller is a former military chaplain whose family life has gone awry. His wife left him after the couple's son died in one of the many recent undeclared wars undertaken by the U.S. Toller is now living, monk-like, in the adjacent residential quarters to his church that's soon to observe its 250th anniversary. The establishment is so old that it was once a part of the Underground Railroad in order to save African-Americans from the chains of slavery. Its membership has dwindled greatly and now exists mostly for historical significance.

Tourists visit. There are even gifts and mementos for sale in the church foyer … all at reasonable prices. It also has a parent church located in the community. It's the much larger Abundant Life Church, which is sponsoring the celebration of Reverend Toller's parish for its outstanding longevity. There's to be a TV simulcast of the event with local townspeople and dignitaries including the New York governor, as well as business people. In fact, a local wealthy businessman is underwriting the whole affair. Michael Gaston plays the underwriter/bizperson. Incidentally, Gaston has a B.A. in History from the University of California at Davis.

Of the few who attend Reverend Toller's services are a young married couple named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary is pregnant. She calls on Toller to counsel her husband. Michael is a radical environmentalist, and although Mary is not in dispute with her husband's feelings about the general environmental threat, she's concerned about Michael's emotional attitude toward the forthcoming birth. He's in such despair about the future, in terms of climate change, etc., he's starting to suggest Mary have an abortion since the future for any offspring the pair would have could only be an unforgivable act of cruelty: religiosity playing a big role here in Michael's mind.

Burdened with personal guilt about his child's death in war and his ex-wife's rage over losing her son, Toller slips in the morass of Mary and Michael's circumstance. Problems arise almost exponentially when Mary happens on to a secreted suicide bomb and jacket Michael has stashed in their garage. She immediately summons Reverend Toller.

I need to add that Hawke has never been better in a role, or as different. I always think back to his work in “Gattaca.” an unsung favorite of mine.

The film, and I write this as a compliment, plays with all the “cheer” of an Ingmar Bergman movie. But wait… don't tune out. “First Reformed” wasn't written and directed by Paul Schrader* for you to be entertained. Nope. As I said: it helps you to learn … while propounding a message, or in this instance, maybe a sermon about guilt, death, rage and, finally ... love.

It's the best new film I've seen since I sat down the first time to watch “The Shape Of Water.” I say to you: among all the many movies released today that you probably ought to miss, “First Reformed” is definitely not one of them.

*Two of Schrader's other film scripts have these titles: “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver.”

Copyright © 2018 by Gary Chew. All rights reserved.


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