' ' Cinema Romantico: First Reformed

Monday, June 18, 2018

First Reformed

Ethan Hawke’s forehead is among the most impressive visages in contemporary cinema. You can track its coming of age, so to speak, through Richard Linklater’s “Before” series. If in 1995’s “Before Sunset” Hawke is a mere baby-faced Gen X’er, nearly a decade later, in “Before Sunset”, his face had weathered to the point where Julie Delpy’s character referred to a particularly deep line in his forehead as a “scar”. Indeed, deep creases appear whenever he furrowed his brow, and he furrows his brow frequently in Paul Schrader’s remarkable “First Reformed” as the anguished Ernst Toller, a reverend at tiny Dutch Reformed clapboard church in upstate New York. His character comes equipped with tragic backstory, and that “scar” functions as visual representation of the baggage he carries. None of this is to suggest Hawke simply lets his forehead do all the acting. If you sometimes wish he might more acutely convey the physical duress his character is said to be under, he still deftly toggles between caring minister and broken man. His is a Pastor who has lost the ability to pray, which is why he is writing his thoughts in a diary, a la “Diary of a Country Priest”, which he plans to burn after one year. Perhaps those flames can be his salvation.

Toller’s inability to pray, however, does not necessarily given up on God or come to doubt His existence, but, like any hardcore Protestant, seen the signs from the Man Above as trending in a bad direction. The film’s opening shot looks up at Toller’s church in the early autumn light, the camera gradually moving in toward the edifice, conspicuously leaving everything else out of the frame. It could be 250 years ago, when the church was first built, and when its spire would have deliberately dominated the landscape. Now, however, First Reformed, with its middling congregation, is less a church than a tourist attraction, where Toller’s job is as much about pointing sightseers to the gift shop as explaining, say, sanctification. No, the church is a virtual museum to the way things were, brought into sharper focus by the parent congregation down the road, megachurch Abundant Life, where the Reverend Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles) is always glimpsed in his office, never at the pulpit, more like a CEO, and one answering to a board of businessmen rather than the Lord.

Michael (Phillip Ettinger), in fact, casually dismisses Abundant Life as a business when he talks with Toller, a meeting arranged by Michael’s wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who is concerned about her husband’s mental state. That is because Mary is pregnant and Michael, a staunch environmentalist, cannot fathom bringing a child into a world that, per his calculations, has already crossed the threshold of its own ecological demise. If Michael recites a litany of talking points, he never comes across conspiratorial and the scene never devolves into political finger-wagging, as Ettinger’s heartbreaking performance fills the sequence with melancholy life, playing the moment like Michael has long since taken the red pill and now cannot unsee the truth. And if Toller contends bringing life into the world supersedes losing that same life, Schrader writes this reasoning into Toller’s backstory, giving it dramatic heft, just as Michael’s fears of having a child are born not of his own selfishness but a worry the act itself is selfish. And that Mary wants to keep her kid is not rendered as a political statement but an expression of the hope lost to her numb husband,  and one which Toller councils as being life’s preeminent struggle – balancing hope and despair, not letting one eclipse the other.

This is the struggle of Mary and Michael and it emerges as Toller’s struggle too, particularly in light of his church’s re-consecration which is being bankrolled by a wealthy Abundant Life donor, Balq (Michael Gaston), whose corporation possesses a dismal environmental record. If Balq tells the Reverend to make the re-consecration a safe space free of politics, Toller sees the church as both a civic and religious institution, glimpsed in a scene where he explains to a group of schoolkids the chapel’s historic role in the Underground Railroad. And the pleasantness with which Hawke plays the scene doubles as a demonstration of his character’s duality. You would never know to look at him that his health is failing, which he only furthers by refusing to care for his body, spending nights drowning in whiskey, mirroring humankind’s own indifference to the planet’s fate. It’s a fate that comes to concern Toller as much as Michael, the Reverend spending nights by the light of a laptop, looking into the environmental crimes of his church’s benefactor.

It is not difficult to draw a jagged line from Toller to Schrader’s most infamous creation, the furtive lone wolf Travis Bickle, which is sort of what Reverend Jeffers does when he admonishes Toller for spending too much time in the garden and not enough time among his people. And if “First Reformed” seems to be charting a similar course as “Taxi Driver”, with its various narrative elements neatly linking up, a little too neatly, to engender a violent reckoning, it sort of swerves into something else as the decidedly modest aesthetic suddenly opts for rapture and romance. That is not to suggest the movie has a happy ending or is intended to convey divine intervention because that would be to suggest it is un-ambiguous. It is not. Rather it is the movie taking up joy and despair movingly, simultaneously in the palm of its hand.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Great review. Finally, someone else takes notice of Ethan Hawke’s finest asset. That man can say more with his forehead than most actors can with a full monologue. I really appreciated this movie and can't wait to see it again, actually.