Tuesday 21 April 2020

Movie Review: First Reformed (2017)

A personal drama about the ravages of creeping depression, First Reformed is an intense portrait of a man teetering on the edge of the mental abyss.

In Albany, New York, Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is in charge of the historic but relatively tiny First Reformed church, now serving mostly as a tourist attraction. Nearby is the Abundant Life megachurch run by Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles). Toller's health is poor and he is still dealing with the trauma of losing his son in the Iraq War and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage. He tries to avoid Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director at Abundant Life, ashamed of the affair they had when his marriage was failing.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a member of the community, implores Toller to speak to her troubled husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist with a prison record and eco-terrorism tendencies. Michael is growing increasingly depressed about the fate of the world due to climate change, and is pressuring Mary to abort her pregnancy. Toller and Michael have a long debate about the battle between despair and hope, but shocking tragedy strikes before they can meet again. With his health deteriorating and his drinking increasing, Toller sinks into a depression and starts to contemplate the unimaginable.

A potent mixture of personal demons clashing with guilt over human-caused global destruction, First Reformed combines two powerful themes. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, the film is a cerebral and intensely personal character study. But it also carries broader commentary on depression finding amplification in the cause of a world warming towards catastrophic inhospitality.

Schrader uses Toller's daily journal as a sometimes verbose narrative device to reveal a man struggling against his own failings. He desperately wants to do better but is weighed down by insurmountable suffering and the burden of betrayal, and drowning a severe stomach ailment with hard drinking does not help.

The debate with Michael is a trigger event, and Schrader leverages the encounter as a pivot point, superficially a stalemate but sowing dangerous seeds in Toller's heart. Michael's treatise on a burning future globe extinguishes the remaining vestiges of hope.

The film seeks a gloomy yet picturesque northeast aesthetic. The quaint First Reformed church, once a place of refuge along the underground railway, is a throwback to a bygone era. Now it's a perfunctory stop for tourists seeking trinkets, Toller's role as souvenir salesman as important as his function as Pastor. The nearby Abundant Life is comparatively cavernous and soulless, a place where big business can write cheques to earn propaganda points, and Toller recognizes he has no future at either church.

Ethan Hawke commits to the dour man drawn to the logic of illogical solutions, his thin facade often cracked by a tortured smile. Schrader offers Toller one glimmer of hope in the form of the appropriately named Mary, hinting at love, devotion and nurturing as the antidotes to anguish, even as one man hurtles towards a singular countdown to extinction.

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