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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

First Reformed

"An Emotionally Haunting Vessel"

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a hard work of art to get through because it realistically reminds audiences that the existence of a conflict doesn’t mean people will acknowledge it. Ethan Hawke gives the most vulnerable performance of his career as Ernst Toller, a Reverend of First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, NY. The church is more of a historical site than a running sanctuary. Most congregants attend the nearby church that owns First Reformed. Toller preaches to his smaller attendance while privately grieving the death of his son whom he encouraged to enlist in the armed forces. He soon meets Amanda Seyfried’s Mary Mensana who is seeking counseling for her husband Michael, (Philip Ettinger) a radical environmentalist who thinks his pregnant wife should abort their child rather than bring it into a world he feels climate change has officially taken over. Michael’s state of mind soon leads to an irreversible tragedy that leaves Mary devastated and Toller’s state of mind hanging by a thread.

Hawkes performance shows what it means to be an actor as he literally steps into the shoes of someone audiences will have the benefit of talking about for a long time. Most complex characters are deemed complex because their actions leave audiences unable to conclude how they feel about them. Toller is complex because he’s so unfamiliar. I’ve never seen a character like him before. Many see him as a ticking time bomb whereas I see him as more of a clock ticking towards midnight. He’s not dangerous but destructive. He is deeply religious, but he doesn't use it for morals because he doesn't need it for that. He knows what’s right and wrong and his faith is more of an expression of love as love is his overall identity.

Amanda Seyfried has done a few dark roles, but I wouldn't really call them dramas. First Reformed is something very different for her. Actors stepping into new roles always leave me hoping that the artist in question will continue venturing on this new path. Toller doesn't put up any facade when in the presence of others. He never pretends to be someone other than himself. Yet, there’s something about Mary that allows to Toller to unwind and be himself in ways he hasn't for a long time. The way in which Seyfried pulls that out of him is a testament to her kindness and spirit. Hawke is the film’s good angel and Mary serves as his wings. They are individuals who both have been through tragedy and they are forever bound together because of it.

Directors project the overall vision of a film. The vision of love and loss that Paul Schradler projects is real and true in every possible way in First Reformed. Cedric Kyles performance as the Pastor of the church that owns First Reformed is fresh but very troubling because he’s the one that gave Toller a fresh start when he needed it but when everything starts to go downhill, his help is nowhere to be found. He’s there listening to Toller but what he’s saying never seems to reach his ears and Kyles portrays that intolerance with actions and no words. Victoria Hill’s performance as Esther, a choir leader Toller was seeing at one point is insufferable not because of her acting abilities as she is quite good but because her character can’t accept that Toller’s not alright. He’s not really a part of her life but he’s a part of her world and his suffering threatens the world she’s envisioned, and she won’t let him down gently for it. "I hate what you bring out in me", Toller says to her at one point. Esther can come across as compassionate but ultimately, Toller’s her puppet and he’s trying to cut the strings.

The writing is sharp and current. It’s one of those scripts that’s meant to challenge audiences. Those who like to wash films off of them when they are over have no idea what they’re in for if they’re planning on seeing First Reformed. The cinematography is a reminder why many films aren't filmed in sound stages anymore. Every location is real, and the film breathes better because of it.

To an extent the film leaves you feeling hopeful but mostly guilty as Michael’s question is still roaming around in my head: "Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?" I’m not religious but the question still haunts me. First Reformed is emotionally haunting, it is a hopeful vessel that may carry us all towards making better choices.

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