First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader has been an amazing writer, with masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Affliction and others highlighting his career, but First Reformed, in spite of an impressive Metascore ( an average score of reviews) of 85 and a rating from audiences of 7,5, still seems like a bizarre, unrewarding contraption for the under signed.
Having said that, it must be underlined that there are many aspects of the film that are noteworthy, such as the alarm bell on the issue of Climate Change – which is creating so many catastrophes right now, with ever more wild and provoked fires and extreme weather killing multitudes throughout the world.
Alas, if we compare this film with Sous Le Soleil de Satan, Diary of a Country Priest and other films that are similar, the French chef d’oeuvres make First Reformed pale in comparison.
Ethan Hawke has had some brilliant performances in his remarkable career – Before Sunset and Before Sunrise come to mind, also Dead Poets Society –only his take on the role of Reverend Ernst Toller is not satisfying – though it is very likely that this viewer is wrong, given the majority of the public and critics that have appreciated this feature.
Even less rewarding is the presence of Amanda Seyfried as Mary, the woman who asks for the help of the clergyman, would get it, notwithstanding the strange intermediary impact of the presence of the man of the church.
Mary is pregnant and wants the reverend to help convince her partner that she should not have an abortion, as he wants, for she thinks that would be murdering the baby, a view that most churches share, in fact encourage and proselytize on.
When the hero meets with Roger, the discussion is more than disturbing, for the young man is not just an activist, but very determined in his quest to stop major corporations, greedy, vicious, loathsome leaders who help destruct the planet, the future of the children.
The young man talks about the effects that Global Warming already have on the planet, the disappearing of the lands near the sea, with the rising levels of the oceans, the migrations that would result, the conflicts, devastated crops and other calamities that are alas happening today.
He has a lot of material on the subject that he is not just keenly aware of, but he is obsessed with, convinced that he and others must act to bring about the major change in mentality, political, economic decisions that keep destroying the earth and the future.
Roger makes a point when he asks about the child, maybe the daughter he might have and her questioning her father, later on, about the state of the world, about which he had known and still decided to bring her into this hell on earth and he feels this is not something he could do.
The Reverend Ernst Toller is evidently impressed – we can see that from his actions, for Ethan Hawke appears somewhat or very wooden, rigid in his unconvincing acting – and would later search the internet, find information about the pollution, destruction, even the First Reformed Church and its affiliations.
He is a pastor in a church that is celebrating two hundred and fifty years of existence, a spot where the slaves stopped on their journey to Canada, when they used The Underground Railway – a superb novel with this title has won the Pulitzer Prize.
Abundant Life is actually the owner of the historical religious place, but the former seems to represent some of what is wrong with modern “spiritual or religious” endeavors, with its insistence on material affluence – the Abundant in the title – to the detriment of other concerns.
There is a clash with Reverend Joel Jeffers aka Cedric the Entertainer and especially the industrialist Ed Balq, who seems to represent the Evil Forces that are about to destroy our planet, concerned as they are only with extracting what there is for profit and elusory gains.
Roger is supposed to meet with the Reverend Ernst Toller, but when the protagonists arrives at the scene, the young man is dead, furthermore, a suicide vest is found in the garage by Mary, who talks with the pastor about it and they both come to the conclusion that they dispose of it and the authorities are better left unaware of the explosive plans
The last rites for the deceased are performed near a waste site, with activist singing and a ceremony that reaches Ed Balq, who is very angered by the presence of the Reverend at this ceremony and takes it as an unacceptable political stand, which is more than inappropriate- it is outright unacceptable.
Reverend Joel Jeffers is of the same opinion, concerned with the festivities celebrating the two hundred and fifty years of history, he wants no politics involved in this, even if the lower ranking clergy insists that this is not politics and that God would surely feel strongly about what happens to His creation- the destruction, spoiling of the earth, oceans…
How do you know? This is the challenge from the angry Evil Man Ed Balq, who questions if Ernst Toller talks with God.
The fact that the pastor is seriously ill, his stomach is in excruciating pain, he urinates blood, makes one think again of the Diary of a Country Priest, and the use of barbed wire on the body recalls Sous le Soleil de Satan.