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FILM 79061
March 4, 2019 | by  | in Film Splash |
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First Reformed, 2018

I don’t want to sound like too much of a film student, but First Reformed was the most important film of 2018.

Paul Schrader’s latest tells the tale of Reverend Ernst Toller (played by Ethan Hawke in what is perhaps the best performance of his career to date), the lonely pastor of a tourist church in upstate New York. Toller’s life changes when he is approached by the pregnant Mary, who begs him to counsel her deeply depressed, environmental activist husband Michael. After Michael’s sudden suicide, Toller begins to spiral out of control and question the authorities of his church. Stealing Michael’s laptop and throwing himself into research about climate change and radicalism, his alcoholism dramatically worsens and he takes solace in conversations with Mary (portrayed with beautiful integrity by Amanda Seyfried).

Throughout the film, Toller’s journal, dictated to us through voiceover, gives the audience an intimate glimpse of his descent into madness and sorrow. Usually I find that voiceovers pull me out of a film, breaking my sense of immersion. However, Schrader uses the narrative device to show off his brilliant script, creating a character in Toller that is unlike any I have ever seen. Because Toller is a man of faith, he must completely re-route his way of thinking in order to come to terms with climate change. A religious person’s perspective on global warming is something I haven’t seen illustrated in film before. Even for a young Greenie like me, rediscovering the imminent end of life as we know it through the eyes of sweet, nihilistic, alcoholic Toller made me feel as though I was learning about climate change all over again.

Another point of note is the frank depiction of white, God-fearing men as potential terrorists. When Toller and Mary discover Michael has been working on a suicide vest, they don’t, even for a moment, try to blame it on some minority. They accept it. Honestly, First Reformed is probably the most 2018 film of 2018.

Now let’s talk about the technicalities. This film is technically fantastic. Like Mid90s, from my previous review, First Reformed was shot in a 4:3 (square) aspect ratio. Is this the latest indie film trend? Grace Yun’s production design is cold and minimalistic, which begs the audience to search for the abundant symbolism in each shot. The cinematography, too, is beautifully sparse and wintery, yet each frame is packed with more hidden meanings than Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. However, not every scene is bare and sterile. Without spoiling too much, I can say that there are a few hallucinatory scenes that rival the surrealness of Enter the Void. But, unlike Enter the Void, the dreamlike, delirious moments in First Reformed are inspired by global destruction, rather than psychedelic drugs.

First Reformed feels crisp and decisive, like a good poem in which every word has a specific purpose within the narrative. Since I first watched this film, barely a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about it. With each rewatch I hear a new line that makes me reconsider the meaning of the entire piece. I believe Schrader did this deliberately, considering the ambiguous nature of the ending (now the subject of many speculative posts on Reddit). Honestly, I could write essay after essay about First Reformed and never do it justice. The only way to truly appreciate and understand this film is to watch it.

Tune in next week to read my 2019 Oscars round-up!



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