Sunday, 19 August 2018

First Reformed - Review

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing the incendiary Taxi Driver in 1976. 42 years later, Schrader has created another film just as provocative and combustible in First Reformed.
It is also features one of Ethan Hawke's finest performances as Reverend Toller.
Toller is a man who is seemingly on a path to self-destruction. One brought upon by a crisis in faith as he tries to balance the tightrope between hope and despair.
Put out to pasture at the First Reformed church, which acts more as a tourist trap and souvenir shop than a place for worship and congregation.
Without the ability to receive or give his own confession, he begins keeping a diary in which he pours his innermost thoughts as frequently as he pours whisky or the communion wine.
In his voiceover narration, expressing disillusionment and indifference of the world in which he resides, this is the most apparent reference to Taxi Driver and the idea that Toller is this generation's Travis Bickle.
The battle between hope and despair is highlighted in a young couple that come to Toller for advice. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the pregnant virginal presence, who offers hope for the world through new life. Her husband, Michael, is the despair. An environmental campaigner who wants Mary to have an abortion, believing it to be wrong to bring a baby into a world that is determined to destroy itself.
As he counsels the couple, the creeping dread and despair grows like a cancer as he learns more of Michael's research and impending actions. But there is a glimmer of hope in Mary, who Toller comes to believe that he can save. Similar to Bickle's relationship with Iris.
Yet Reverend Toller is the very embodiment of hypocrisy. He bemoans the church's lack of action in preserving the environment, God's creation. However despite various people including doctors telling him that he is very ill and must take better care of himself, Toller continues to drink to excess every night while writing his journal. His personal catharis.
Hawke excels in the role and brings a believable pain and anguish to the screen. Here is a man who was born into the church through his family but also was part of the military. This led to him losing his family when his son signed up for the army and was killed in combat. A man who knows nothing but the church but is no longer cut out for that life. A impossible mixture like oil and water. Or whisky and Pepto Bismol in one of the film's most striking images and the point of no return for the character.
This is all leading to the final sermon of Reverend Toller as the various plot threads slowly tie together into a climax that is one of the most shocking and memorable of recent years.
First Reformed is one of the year's best films and a return to form for one of cinema's most inflammatory filmmakers.

4 stars

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