Saturday, July 21, 2018

The World is Ending, Let's Fall in Love

First Reformed (2017) - Schrader
Screen Shot 2018-07-21 at 10.12.36 AM
Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a mild mannered, wise pastor of the First Reformed church in small town upstate New York. His congregation is tiny. Even though the historic white chapel church is about to be reconsecrated for being 250 years old, it is functioning more as a tourist site and in Toller's own words, "gift shop", to the megachurch next door, Abundant Life. He lost his son in the Iraq war and so his marriage fell apart. He drinks and has health problems which he won't seek out help for. In the beginning of the movie, we see Toller starting a journal where he pours out his heart and soul. It's a test, self discipline of sorts. When it's filled, he will rip it up and burn the pages. We see the glimpse of internal struggle with his faith already there.

Things get shaken when a young couple come for his advice. Mary the pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) says her environmental activist husband Micheal (Philip Ettinger) is conflicted. He visits them at home. There Michael lays out the evidence of man-made destruction of the earth. That he sees no point of bringing a child to the world. Toller's typically wise man of god talk won't comfort the troubled man. After Michael blows his brains out, Toller's laissez-faire attitude at least from the outside perspective, changes. Not to complicate the suicide case, Toller tells Mary to get rid of any possible incriminating evidences - including a suicide bomb vest that her husband hid in his garage for whatever reason. Helping Mary coping with the death draws them closer too.

Things come to focus as Toller sees that the big donor of the church, is a coal baron whose industry is wrecking a havoc on the environment. As the First Reformed reconsecration service looms, he has one thing left to do.

I believe Schrader mentioned Bergman's Winter Light as a source of inspiration. And yes, there is more than the narrative thread with the suicide and everything in the beginning, that the film has its affinity with. But also that sinewy human entanglement that many Bergman's characters see as a prison is there too - definitely Bergman-esque. But whether you consider Schrader's filmography spotty at best, he is responsible for penning Taxi Driver. First Reformed is definitely not a rehash of the masters' older films he is inspired by. Dealing with the contemporary issue that we all face (it was the threat of atom bomb in Bergman's film), Schrader squarely puts the ball on our court to toil with.

Shot in stately full frame 4:3 and simple, straightforward narrative, First Reformed is an extremely lean film. There is a lot of humor in it too. Mystery Magic Tour scene alone is worth the admission. Ethan Hawke, with his craggy forehead, finally aging appropriately, gives the best performance of his career as a conflicted, religious man in the time of uncertainty. The ending goes haywire in the most beautiful way and I really loved it.