First Reformed

When I left the screening for this movie, my wife asked me later how the movie was. I told her it was good, and wished she would’ve gone with me to see it.  That was a month ago, and each day I’ve found myself thinking more and more about it. So much so, that I can’t wait to see it again when it opens, and discuss its powerful themes with my wife; especially since I consider myself a non-practicing atheist.

This is a powerful character study of a religious man fighting his demons. It’s never heavy-handed — whether it’s tackling environmental or religious issues.

Ethan Hawke continues to do interesting work, and I applaud the choices he makes. Many critics have said this is his best performance (they should probably see Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Side note about critics: Every single one of them I glanced at on Rotten Tomatoes, has given away things about this movie. That’s unnecessary to do when writing a review, and it baffles me how they probably don’t even realize they’re doing this.

I’m thrilled that the filmmakers weren’t afraid to cast Cedric the Entertainer in a non-comedic role, in which he’s perfect. This is an example of a comedian going against type that I’d like to see snag an Oscar nomination. Previous actors I said that about are Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and George Carlin in The Prince of Tides, both movies that make my all-time great list. For some reason, it was only Robin Williams that could do serious roles and get the Oscar nominations and praise. So please Academy, give a nomination to Cedric, along with Ethan, for this movie.

I’m sure many critics will call this the best Paul Schrader (Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ) movie in years, but that doesn’t mean much. His last few movies were things like Dog Eat Dog with Nic Cage, and The Canyons, an erotic-thriller a few years back with Lindsay Lohan. The last movie he directed that I recall liking was Affliction (Nick Nolte, James Coburn) about 10 years ago. And even that was rather flawed.

Perhaps the only flaw, if you can call it that, that I found with this movie is that it reminded me so much of his Taxi Driver script.

Since this movie will be a bit low-key for some folks, I don’t want to spoil a single thing. It’s a lot more powerful when you slowly find out things about the various characters.

Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) runs the First Reformed Church, which is hundreds of years old. It has a rather small congregation, but folks often flock to it as a tourist attraction. Schools even take tours, as it was once used as part of the Underground Railroad. Toller has gone from being a military chaplain to working here. You’re quickly informed of some of the reasons why.

We watch (and listen) as he writes in a journal, and spends evenings drinking by himself.

We watch as he starts to connect with Mary (Amanda Seyfried, in a terrific, subtle performance). He counsels her because of problems in her marriage. Her husband (Philip Ettinger) doesn’t want them to bring a baby into a world that is being polluted and destroyed by various industries. Thankfully, the movie never gets too preachy (no pun intended).

There’s a scene with the Reverend talking to the husband, and it reminded me a lot of the powerful scene in You Can Count On Me, when Laura Linney’s character wants a minister she respects, to talk to her brother (Mark Ruffalo), who has recently returned from prison. The brother’s not the least bit religious, but he’s respectful and engages in the conversation. Sometimes a scene like that can be just as powerful as a man of the cloth talking to somebody and having it go south (as it did in Three Billboards last year).

In this movie, the dialogue is surprisingly interesting between these two. Especially since the younger guy seems to be persuading the Reverend that the Earth God created might be slowly being destroyed. And the Reverend believes he might be convincing this environmentalist that perhaps a baby can thrive in this world, even if some of the rivers are being polluted and the ozone layer might be toast.

This movie also has a second interesting female character. It’s church member Esther (Victoria Hill), who has a crush on Reverend Toller.

Watching the Reverend become more disillusioned is fascinating. It was also fascinating to find out some of the small things I missed that this movie had included. One of those being reference to Linda J. Flarisee’s novel “One Eye Open” (that deals with a preacher’s wife dealing with depression).

Most times, I don’t notice when filmmakers are doing things with the lighting and visuals. Unless a movie is made in black and white. Yet I noticed this movie seemed to have a lot of natural lighting, and it didn’t have an obnoxious score that tried to help us along with our emotions. What little score there is is provided by Brian Williams.

Cinematographer Alexander Dynan deserves some of the credit for how nuanced this picture was shot. Perhaps the only thing I wished I would’ve seen more of is religious imagery. Sometimes, a perfectly edited shot to a visual of a cross or something in the church, can be rather powerful.

This is the movie the overrated Doubt (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis) should’ve been. It’s a terrific story about a man slowly losing his faith, and it’s a rather sensitive piece of writing from Schrader. It’s not always an easy film to watch, but it was never boring.

I’m going to see it a second time at the Angelika Film Center this weekend. I’m anticipating a debate with my wife on the ending of the movie.

4 stars out of 5.