First Reformed Review
First Reformed is the pinnacle of Paul Schrader. Part study of character of a man caught in a despair and seeking the way out (Taxi Driver American Gigolo), part expressive treatise about the inner tension (Mishima the Story Of A Life In Four Chapters) and part '70s exploitation (Dying Of The Light, Dog Eat Dog), director and writer takes the issues that have been a constant throughout his career and re-invents them to be relevant in today's 21st Century. It's adamant and difficult yet it marks the return to soaring form to the one of US cinema's most personaland strong voices.
A career-high, Ethan Hawke is superb as Father Toller, who presides over a church which is thought to be more than an "souvenir shop" that is about to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its founding. He's an iconic Schrader anti-hero, a lonely person who drinks too much and has personal trauma and suffering from cancer, filled with doubts (shared with a heavy voiceovers). The tensions he faces are intensified when a pregnant parishioner Mary (Seyfried) is invited to meet with her husband, who is struggling with depression Michael (Ettinger). Michael is an environmentalist who is radical and — during an extended theological discussion with Toller explains why he "cannot accept" the introduction of children into such an unwholesome world. The next issue, "Will God forgive us?", percolates in Toller's head. In addition to his health issues and the events of his church being financed through a dubious oil firm the faith of his family is challenged. An once holy man is contemplating an act that is clearly unholy.
One of the most important motifs for Schrader has been Robert Bresson's Diary Of A Country Priest and this is his most bizarre version to date. Filmed in a square 1:37:1 aspect ratio, the film is minimalist, capturing Toller's everyday rituals and struggle with a slick, deliberate beat. But as the film progresses the style and script becomes more dramatic. A moment of intimacy of love between Toller and Mary becomes an epic flight of imagination across the universe and over the ecological catastrophe zones. When Toller embarks on an absurd action of redemption and the film swoops into a brand new world of grindhouse mania, played to the tune 'Leaning On the Everlasting Arms'.
Toller's shy life is portrayed with Father Jeffers, the pastor of a popular church and perfectly played by Cedric The Entertainer. He is described as Cedric Kyles. This is a serious film to be a fun film with such frills. Seyfried is the heart of the story However, it's Hawke's story. As a convincing man of the world, he discovers shades of guilt, compassion and frustration that all boil up into a rage that is unforgettable which makes him and is an Oscar front-runner. Fingers crossed that the Academy has a long memory.