Paul Schrader’s First Reformed grabs your attention from the very beginning and refuses to let go and takes you on an intense and almost sickeningly real story of a reverend who slowly but surely begins to lose all faith.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a minister of a church named First Reformed. At the church, he meets a woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who voices her concerns about her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) due to his rapidly increasing worry of global warming and believes that he could not bring a baby into the world, because he fears that the child will leave in a broken, polluted world. From here, Ernst has to work together with Mary to find out how they can restore Michael’s faith, but also goes on a journey of self-discovery while also developing new relationships.
Ethan Hawke has always been an actor that I had admired, but his best performance just may be in First Reformed. As the film progressed, I began to view this character of Ernst Toller as a real human being, because he feels like he is due to the many layers of characterization and the grounded writing surrounding his character. He is constantly voicing his concerns and always has something on his mind that he would like to say. Quite frequently, he questions his beliefs and starts to wonder about many things which felt drastically real and believable. Hawke is an actor that I have been familiar with for years, but this is one of those rare times where it is nearly impossible to see the actor in a role.
Also exceptional here is Seyfried as Mary. It is clear that her days of portraying Karen from 2004’s teen comedy hit Mean Girls are over and she wants to become a more dramatic actor, which is actually happening with a plethora of other comedians right now such as Steve Carell, who is iconic in many comedy roles, but is turning over a new leaf with pictures such as Foxcatcher (2014) and Beautiful Boy (2018). Seyfried, much like Hawke, feels unbelievably grounded and is a character that you feel deep sympathy for as the overall story begins to unravel.
First Reformed is also one of the best shot films of the entire year, with director of photography Alexander Dynan behind the camera. All of the scenes look absolutely gorgeous with great shot structures, but with a tinge of bleakness. The contrast is stunning and therefore results in no weak scenes throughout.
The film clocks in at one hundred and thirteen minutes long, but did feel considerably longer. At times, the pacing was a bit slow and it would have been nice to speed things up. It takes a little while until everything all kicks into gear and things get into motion.
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of First Reformed is the story present and how it is all told by Schrader. At its core, this is a film about hope and how one can lose it so easily, and how they must try their best no matter the cost to get it back. Hope is one of the most crucial keys to living a happy life. When we first see Ernst in First Reformed, he seems to be a relatively happy man and even says that he is early in the picture. But as the film goes on, and we see his hope begin to steadily decline, we can tell just by looking at his face and the things he does in his day to day life that he really is not a happy man. This message was incredibly powerful to me and was executed masterfully.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is an astonishingly grounded and unsettling look at the steady decline of a man losing hope with incredible writing and exceptional performances, notably by Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried.
Overall Grade: A
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some disturbing violent images
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Distributed by: A24
Running Time: 113 minutes