Paul Schrader, the writer and director of one of this calendar year’s best films, First Reformed, is no stranger to the subject of redemption. There are elements of that subject in much of his work over the last five decades, with Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, Hardcore and Raging Bull being only a few examples one could cite. His latest film, a return to form after a decade and a half spent in a sort of cinematic wilderness, succeeds so well because we have the veteran writer-director Schrader mining material that obviously is quite near and dear to his heart and psyche. This is a film that oozes passion but it’s more than just a passion project. It’s a film that has a lot to say about the world that we’re living in these days but does it in a way that doesn’t feel preachy, pardon the pun.
Ethan Hawke, an actor who seems to be getting better and better due to his willingness and ability to take chances these days with riskier material, is the glue that holds the film together in his performance as Ernst Toller. Toller, mid forties, serves as a pastor at a very small Dutch reform church in rural upstate New York and seems to be doing okay as the film opens. He doesn’t seem to question life and appears take it all as it comes. This changes when one of the parishioners (Amanda Seyfried, also quite good) makes a plea with the pastor to have a conversation with her husband. Her husband has concerns about bringing a child into our current world of accelerated climate change and mass deforestation and isn’t sure that it would be responsible to bring another human being into this world in which we are living. Toller’s life trajectory is changed once he begins conversing with the young man.
The conversation with the young woman’s husband serves as a springboard to opening his mind. Toller, who lost a son of his own through war, begins to question his faith and starts to reevaluate his way of looking at things. All of this transpires at the same time that the church is getting ready to celebrate its 250th anniversary, which presents its own set of problems. As Toller confronts his own past he contemplates what might be the best solution for all as he gradually prepares to make his own grand and defiant personal statement.
First Reformed is powerful stuff that is certain to leave those willing to get on its wavelength with much to ruminate on long after it’s over. It’s an unflinching and uncompromising look at the complicated place we are in our current world state of affairs that couldn’t be coming out at a more relevant time. It’s also a return to form for one of our great filmmaking voices and it serves to remind just how much we need films like this right now.
Image: Hawke & Seyfried in First Reformed
First Reformed is playing at the Regal Ballantyne Village Stadium 5 in Charlotte.
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