‘First Reformed’ Held Down By Its Own Heavy Hand (FILM REVIEW)

Paul Schrader’s career is littered with astounding highs and baffling lows. This is the guy, after all, who wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and directed American Gigolo and Auto Focus. Of course, he’s also the guy who wrote and directed Dying of the Light and Dog Eat Dog.

First Reformed, written and directed by Schrader, seems emblematic of his total career, both its highs and its lows. It is a poetically cinematic work that features the performances of its actors’ careers. It’s also a stunningly heavy-handed work whose script often mistakes nuance for a mallet over the head.

Sure, it’s important I guess, and has a wonderful message about staying true to yourself and your ethics in the face powerful opposing currents, but the iron gloved approach to the messaging too often sullies what otherwise might have been a truly stand out work.

There’s a certain irony in making this statement, considering how alone I seem to be in making it. In a way I almost feel like Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller, standing alone and screaming “Maybe you’re wrong” in a world that doesn’t want to hear it. Here I stand, and here I am prepared to die.

So much of First Reformed feels like Schrader went on a wikiwalk about global warming and freaked himself out so much that he needed an exegesis. He’s not unartful by any means; the film is beautifully shot and, as I mentioned, phenomenally well performed. Too often, however, Schrader seems to screaming “WHY AREN’T WE CARING MORE ABOUT THIS?!”

Which is fair. That’s a great question. It’s baffling that we are spending so much time hand wringing about reality instead trying to do something about it or, at the very least, prepare. On that level, I feel you, Paul. But his approach is tiresome in that preaching-to-the-choir kinda way.

Like the rest of us, Schrader has no answers, choosing instead to use the premise as a window through which to view one man’s growing existential and spiritual crisis. Here is where the movie moves best, even if Schrader’s theological musings often border on trite. Hawke is stunning as Toller, a troubled priest serving as caretaker of a historically significant church living in the shadows, and by the graces of, a megachurch helmed by the boisterous Reverend Jeffers (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles).

It’s certainly hard meandering through a purposeless existence in the shadows of someone greater, but Toller finds a new lease on life when a parishioner, eye-rollingly named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), seeks his help. Her environmental activist husband is spiraling deeper into despair over the growing threat against life. Thinking he can help the troubled young man, Toller soon finds himself in his own existential spiral that threatens to consume him, and his faith, for good.

While both Hawke and Seyfried (and Kyles, let’s be honest) are truly sublime, Schrader’s intellectual browbeating hinders the movie in near unforgiveable ways. Though filled with cinematic poeticism and backed by awards worthy performances, the sum total is a film that is, at best, okay. Even its visceral finale can’t do much to salvage the general okayness of the work as a whole. In the end, it’s a film with grand ideas and a poor aim. It’s shot might be impressive, but it still misses the mark.

First Reformed is now playing in select theaters.

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