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REVIEW: First Reformed

REVIEW: First Reformed First Reformed, dir. Paul Schrader

Director Paul Schrader joins a group of films in this year’s Venice Main Competition that are concerned with the destruction of our planet’s environment via greed and over-exploitation with his latest film First Reformed. Maybe they are trying to tell us something.

One of the veteran director Schrader’s best films of recent of recent years First Reformed is a film about spiritual life.  It stars Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller the minister of a small, historical and mostly empty church. Toller is an ex-military chaplain who is tortured by the loss of a son he encouraged to enlist in the armed forces.  His already shaky faith in God is further challenged after a young couple, Mary played by Amanda Seyfried and her radical environmentalist husband Michael played by Philip Ettinger, come to him for counselling. Mary is pregnant but Michael does not want to bring any children into the world because he thinks the planet has no future.

Toller is obsessed by the idea that the world is being destroyed by big business and he then discovers the church’s complicity with unscrupulous corporations.  The beautiful Dutch Reformed church he heads is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary.  His worst suspicions about the corrupt state of the world are confirmed when he meets up with Ed Balq played by Michael Gaston the parishioner who runs a corrupt oil company and who is paying for the celebrations.

Meanwhile at the Toller’s confidence and faith are further undermined when he meets up with the charismatic Pastor Jeffers played by Cedric Antonie Kyles who presides over a constantly full and popular 5000 seat church down the road from Toller’s church.

But things all come to a head when Toller discovers explosives in Michael’s garage and evidence that Michael plans a terrorist act to back up his beliefs.

In his director’s statement Schrader said “When I was younger, I wrote about and admired films about the spiritual life but I never thought I would make one myself. In 2013 I had dinner with Paweł Pawlikowski, the director of Ida. Walking home afterwards I thought to myself, “It’s time for me to write one of these scripts”. First Reformed is a script I’ve been moving toward for almost fifty years. Once I began it came quite quickly. It had been lying in wait for me. I don’t think an artist should preclude interpretations of his or her work. The task is to evoke those interpretations.”

This is a powerful film that harks back to Schrader’s early work as a scriptwriter in films like Taxi Driver or as a director in films like American Gigolo and we see once again a master in his maturity.

This is an austere vision and it is not sure that it will find box office success on a wide scale but this is a film that is sure to be showing up on the festival circuit repeatedly throughout the coming season as well as garnering a string of well deserved awards for both the director and the main cast.

Credits: First Reformed (USA)
Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Cedric Antonio Kyles, Michael Gaston, Victoria Hill

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