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Friday 7 December 2018

First Reformed, Film USA 2018, written and directed by Paul Schrader, 8* out of 10

"First Reformed" is only slightly marred by a weak ending. Ethan Hawke in the role of a troubled priest in troubled times leads a strong ensemble of actors, but the cinematography by Alexander Dynan is the true stand-out in this thought-provoking drama.

New York State 2017. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the priest in a small picturesque village community church in upstate New York which was founded by Dutch Protestants in the 18th century and provided shelter to black slaves escaping with the help of the Underground Railway. Starved of funds and with a very small congregation, Toller’s church survives because it is part of Abundant Life a large modern evangelist congregation with its own broadcasting facilities. It also has a large modern church and community center and attracts young people and wealthy donors, among them Mr. Balq (Michael Gaston) the founder and CEO of the major local industrial company whose donations ensure the upkeep of Toller’s small church. 

Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles) who heads Abundant Life has helped Toller obtain his post so that he can free himself from the demons of a difficult past which haunt him. The small congregation and the occasional tourist group looking for a guided tour of the historic church are not very demanding, but the upcoming Jubilee celebrations for his little church are an unwelcome source of limelight and stress for the troubled priest.

One day after services one of Toller’s congregants the young pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him for advice and guidance for herself and her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael has been away in Canada where he has become part of a radical environmental activist group. He has come to believe that the future for humanity is bleak and hopeless due to capitalisms nefarious impact on the environment and wants Mary to abort. At Mary’s urging, Toller reluctantly agrees to speak to Michael. But with his own troubles, Toller is quite vulnerable to pessimism, particularly when it is not unfounded. As the pressure slowly mounts events take a dramatic turn.

First Reformed is an understated drama that slowly builds up suspense. The issues raised in tense conversations are big issues of our time.  It is a credit to the writing that they are not dealt with in a preachy way, but serve as triggers to moral dilemmas that cause inner turmoil and desperate actions by some of the protagonists. Apart from the decidedly lackluster (non-)ending, this is a good story well told. The direction and the ensemble acting performances are all strong. What makes First Reformed stand out, however, is the cinematography by Alexander Dynan. The almost sepia tones of some of the landscape scenes and the static wide-angle view with people moving through the picture are very well matched to the pace and feel of the story. 

Is there is any damaging development whose future impact we feel confident in predicting that justifies us resorting to violence against people who are maliciously or willfully blind? This is not about using violent self-defense against imminent mortal danger as authorized by the law, but violence against a longer-term threat. There is apparently something deceptively and disturbingly attractive in having a cause which authorizes an inner drive to give way to righteous indignation leading to the feeling of justification for “righteous violence”. Given mankind’s evolutionary path violence is always a temptation and violence authorized by a strongly held belief, whether religious or secular, is apparently hard to resist. 

First Reformed is a movie that makes one think, a visually appealing, thought-provoking and suspenseful drama.

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