27th Sep2018

‘First Reformed’ Review

by Jak-Luke Sharp

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston, Bill Hoag, Kristin Villanueva | Written and Directed by Paul Schrader


Infamous writer and director Paul Schrader returns to cinema screens after a desolate and toxic decade fighting against studio interference and the ideals of an auteur’s final cut. Spending a large amount of his career being the backbone and spine to many utterly outstanding and defining films in American cinema and masters at the helm, notably writing four Martin Scorsese features: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and as of 1999, Bringing Out the Dead, while also the screenplay for NYC alumni Brian De Palma’s cult classic Obsession. First Reformed is his latest effort as an artist devastating his white canvas in a slow, artistic, impact of torturous stoic emotional grievance and psychological abuse that haunts the screen hours after the fact. Schrader’s film is the embodiment of fear and angst aimed at questions and answers one presumably can never hope to find, nor receive in this world; intertwined with a semi-ironic and self-deprecating religious element planted every so wonderfully within the ideals of the church, god and prayer – with Ethan Hawke’s character Rev. Ernst Toller a troubled priest, a victim of circumstance, adding the ironic underbelly of faith.

Schrader forged a golden era of an innovative and shocking palette of truly engrossing and dangerous subjects, which helped define and solidify the innovation of the 1970’s collective “American cinema” via his brash and dark calculated writing of the power and struggles of people, to a wide reach of critical acclaim. It’s the theme of the power struggle of mankind and their ideology that has resonated throughout his career, not only in the characters but also the subject itself. First Reformed is the clear and distinctive personification of said themes and the embodiment of Schrader’s examination of moral calamity. It asks the questions of mankind in manners that is never expressively matter of fact, only implied without consequence, ultimately leading up to a devastating uproar of liability. Its this element of dodging and weaving the accountability of disaster that plagues the characters, and conclusively the audience, to an aura of an eerie haunting exhibition.

As director he touches upon this notion of mankind’s vulnerability in a raw and devastating fashion. In the case of Hawkes’ character and Amanda Seyfried’s character, Mary Mansana, both are plagued with a consequence of action, beautifully performed on screen in a stoic and slight emotionally crippling arc that seeps through slowly but surely. The theme of mankind fighting back against its oppressors is not new in Schrader’s filmography. His directorial debut Blue Collar examines the destructive perils of government oppression and the depths in which people will survive in the face of certain devastating adversary. His second feature Hardcore, starring George C. Scott in a career-best with an astonishing dark portrayal of a man plagued with grief and struggles, with the strict realisation of awareness of morality and their consequence when his daughter goes missing and presumed dead after Scott’s character witnesses her in a snuff film. A theme very much aware and rife in First Reformed, intertwined with the morally ambiguous and deceptive ideology of De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, the damning common ground can be found in Hawke’s role, undoubtedly a stellar career best, who’s role shakes a characters thoughts, prayers and future from beginning to end; by steering a gargantuan ship of morally destructive emotions and grappling with an influx of perplexing moral high ground.

Astonishingly bleak and raw emotion is stored in captivating tales of trial and tribulations with hope all but a vision of deranged grandeur. It is this dark underbelly of frantic and daunting emotion that Schrader revels in, the moral question and justification of what is right and what isn’t, what can be done and what needs to be done. A constant drowning of middle ground morals perpetuates throughout a fabulous astonishingly beautiful film about the bleak of grief and strong weight of guilt that rests upon one’s heart and head.

Alas, the studio system and Schrader have parted ways in a chaotic and deadly fashion, numerous efforts to keep final cut have proved disastrous with The Dying of a Light a most extreme example, while also admitting his latest release, the spectacularly forthright and underrated Dog Eat Dog, wasn’t necessarily the final cut he’d assembled or advocated. It seemed the new Hollywood wave was beginning to come to an end for Schrader, perhaps this is his climatic swan song? Yet with a film that evokes such a powerful relevance, it’s hard to believe that a master of his won’t stick it out for the dues he’s so sorely earned.


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