First Reformed (2018)
Directed by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s big break came in 1976, when his screenplay about an obsessed NYC cabbie got picked up by director Martin Scorsese. Four years later, he helped out Scorsese again by lending his pen to “Raging Bull.” His scripts have been directed by Sydney Pollack and Brian de Palma. But all of that was 40+ years ago. Now, Paul Schrader is directing his own scripts. He brought his passion project “First Reformed” to life with Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric the Entertainer (now going by his given name, Cedric Antonio Kyles) as the principle cast. But his story about a minister’s drastic crisis of faith would’ve benefitted from a few critical pairs of eyes.
Ernst Toller (Hawke) is the veteran minister of a small, historic country church in upstate New York. He preaches every Sunday to no more than a dozen congregants, including what I assumed was his ex-wife and one relatively new couple, Mary (Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger), who participate in environmental activism. When Mary asks the minister to talk to Michael about a recent crisis, the conversation shakes Toller to his core. The events that follow don’t help the chasm that begins to grow in his faith. On top of this, Toller has to plan a celebration at his church, alongside the pastor across town (Cedric Antonio Kyles).
I forgot to mention that the divorced minister also has demons from his past, and a drinking problem. Oh, and he journals! So you get to hear his nauseatingly silly inner thoughts throughout the movie! Seyfried’s character has a sister and parents in Buffalo, but other than that we know absolutely nothing about her or her history, her goals, anything. Mary is written so one-dimensionally, I would’ve assumed it was the work of a first-time screenwriter, not a Hollywood old hand. Michael, Mary’s hardcore activist husband, never gets off his soapbox. But he’s not on it nearly as long as Reverend Toller is on his proverbial pulpit (though we rarely see him at an actual pulpit). And that’s just the beginning of the caricatures seen throughout the movie. We can’t begin to care about these characters, even after spending two terribly long hours around them, because they’re not fully developed. Creatively, they’re still fetuses.
If the characters are bad, the story is worse. Something with the potential to be so serious quickly turns hokey after a series of ridiculous events and even more ridiculous reactions to them. Maybe it’s just that the actors weren’t giving it their all, or maybe it was the stilted dialogue, or likely both. “First Reformed” is not nearly as poignant and meaningful as Schrader hoped. I wish someone had told him to tone it down a bit, to befriend subtlety, to avoid the heavy-handed moral lessons that splash across each scene. But nobody did. And what we’re left with is something so far from realistic or relatable that it makes it difficult to give a damn.