More noise than signal

First Reformed

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, he of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull fame, First Reformed sees Ethan Hawke slip on the dog collar of Reverend Ernst Toller, of the titular church, 250 years old and more of a tourist attraction than a working church. Nonetheless, there’s a small flock to tend to, and he’s called on to help Amanda Seyfried’s Mary deal with her radical environmentalist husband, Philip Ettinger’s Michael.

He believes it’s a mistake to bring a child into a world on the brink of ecological collapse, and wants Mary to get an abortion, which I understand there is some religious resistance to. While counselling Michael, Toller reveals some of the heartache that’s been brought into his life, his son being killed in the limited police actions in Iraq. This may perhaps explain Toller’s affinity for the bottle, and also his journal entries that attempt to rationalise his thoughts.

Things take a dark turn, from an already fairly dark grey state, when Michael kills himself, and in cleaning up his stuff Mary finds not just the stack of material calling eco-warriors to arms, but the materials to construct a suicide vest. Toller’s mission then becomes to comfort Mary, while also dealing with preparations for the upcoming church anniversary celebrations, and his own rapidly failing health.

There’s perhaps little value in recounting much more of the events, but as time goes on Toller’s mental state grows increasingly fragile, leading to some extreme places by the end of the film. There’s certainly more than a hint of Taxi Driver going on, as a character study of a man pushed out to the extremes by personal circumstance. It is, however, rather less satisfying by the time you get to the end of it.

None of that’s Ethan Hawke’s fault, who puts in a great performance, and the supporting actors do well enough with what they’re given. But there’s a certain sense that First Reformed doesn’t know quite what its central thrust is, and keeps diving down rabbit holes that don’t go anywhere, either the eco-messaging, or the implication of corruption in the church, and when it eventually swings back to focusing on the character study part of it, I don’t buy that it’s examined him anywhere near well enough to drop this sort of ending on us.

Questions remain about the last ten minutes then, and also about the laughably ropey effects shot that I understand is meant to be metaphorical, but is visually ridiculous. The rest of the running time I rather enjoyed. For the bulk of it, it’s an intriguing character study that’s played very well by Ethan Hawke, as he so often does, and while fluffing the landing means I can’t be overly enthusiastic about the recommendation, nonetheless I do recommend it.