Movie Review: First Reformed (2018)
Imagine Travis Bickle as a minister rather than a taxi driver, obsessed about environmental issues rather than pornography and prostitution, and you have something like “First Reformed,” a movie written and directed by “Taxi Driver”’s screenwriter Paul Schrader, and starring Ethan Hawke as Rev. Ernst Toller.
It’s getting buzz. Some people think it’s the best movie of the first half of the year.
I know. That’s a little like winning the tallest munchkin competition. Besides, I don’t agree. I didn’t like it much. It’s a dreary, hushed film. Half the shots reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings but not in a good way. I kept flashing on Eric Engstrom’s photograph “Grace,” but not in a good way. Everything is spare and lit like a painting with about as much movement. I was frequently bored and ultimately disappointed because what Toller was wrestling with didn’t feel profound to me.
Jonah will be 33 in the year 2050
Toller is the minister at First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, NY, which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It has some heady history—including as a stop on the underground railroad. Now it is owned by a mega-church, Abundant Life, and is more museum and gift shop than sanctuary. Every Sunday, Toller preaches, without much light or charity, to a handful of people in the pews. Mostly singles and a couple. You can’t miss the couple because one half of it, Mary, is played by Amanda Seyfried, all big-eyed and blond-haired and full-lipped and concerned. She’s mostly concerned about her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger). He thinks it’s wrong to bring a child into a world such as this, and since she's pregnant it's more than a rhetorical point. So she asks the Reverend to come around the house for a talk.
Their talk isn’t much, but Toller, in voiceover, equates it with wrestling with God. We get voiceovers a lot since, at night, sipping bourbon, Toller is writing down his thoughts. He plans to do this for a year and then burn the results. What started such a process I don’t know. Why for a year I don’t know. As for the thoughts themselves? They don’t shed a lot of light. Scurrying in the gloaming.
I like the actor who plays Michael. He’s husky and bearded and there’s something off about his eyes in the same way Vincent D’Onofrio has something off about his eyes. Toller does get in one good line. He says he comes from a military family, and he was a chaplain in the military, and he encouraged his son to join. Then the son was shipped to Iraq during the Iraq War and died. He tells Michael that as dark and depressing as it may be to think about bringing a child into the world, it is much, much worse to take one out of it.
You know what else he could’ve brought up? “Jonah Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.” It’s a 1976 Swiss/French film about former counterculture revolutionaries rehashing what went wrong and worrying over what the world will be like for the child, Jonah, in that distant, titular year. He could’ve said every generation thinks what they’re going through is the worst but they get through it. The future arrives and becomes the past. He could‘ve said that the answer to the destruction of the planet isn’t greater destruction but life. He could have recommended a doctor.
The revelation about his own family misfortune—his wife left him shortly afterwards—explains some aspect of Toller. He’s not a man comfortable in his own skin. He’s uncomfortable in the way that Hawke frequently is during the second half of his career. Schrader’s script actually demands that he seem both tortured and a beacon to kids. Imagine that conversation: You drink too much, see? You piss blood—literally. Do you have cancer? You’re afraid to find out. You walk around in pain. You’re tortured. Kids love you. Now go.
I don’t know if Hawke manages. He leans toward odd and doesn’t seem like a minister to me. There's no calm. Basically the movie gives us the jittery, alcoholic Toller and the gladhanding megachurch minister, Rev. Joel Jeffers, played sotto-voce style by Cedric the Entertainer, and neither feels like a man of God. Rev. Jeffers is also in cahoots from Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a brash, bald industrialist, who may be destroying the planet but at least gives the movie a jolt with his presence.
Several things happen. In the garage, Mary finds a suicide-bomb jacket Michael made. She calls Toller to take it away. He and Michael are supposed to have a follow-up discussion but Michael changes the venue to a more secluded spot. When Toller shows up, he finds Michael with his brains blown out.
And then slowly, suicide jacket in hand, Michael’s fanaticism becomes Toller’s.
The lady or the tiger?
Is it partly meeting Balq? Balq chastises him for holding Michael’s funeral on a superfund site. Then Balq implies that Rev. Toller was responsible for Michael’s death. Oh, you were counseling him? Oh, then he died? That kind of thing. He does this to a reverend. The reverend just sits there.
Watching, one thing I hoped was that Toller wouldn’t get together with Mary. She’s not the answer. For Toller or for the film.
Does it happen? Ça depend. During the 250th anniversary celebration at First Reformed, with Balq, Jeffries, the mayor and the governor among the luminaries attending, Toller plans on wearing the suicide bomber jacket below his vestments and blowing the place sky high. Except Mary, against his wishes, shows up. Quick question: How does she get a seat? Aren’t they so coveted that folks are watching the ceremony on video at the megachurch? Or is she not really there? Is her appearance simply a form of his conscience taking hold?
Either way, once he knows he can’t blow the joint sky-high, he lets out an almost animalistic howl of protest, then opts for Plan B. And Plan B is so Schrader. Toller wraps his bare torso tightly with barb wire, and, with his flesh cut and bleeding, contemplates tossing back a glass of Drano. He holds it in his hand and stares at it. At that point, Mary enters the rectory. He drops the glass, and they run to each other and kiss as the camera spins around them and ... The End.
So: Is this camera-whirling kiss just his imagination? A brief glimpse of the afterlife after he's Dranoed himself? Who knows? Who cares? If he's dead, the movie is about two men who contemplate eco-terrorism before killing themselves; if he's alive and the kiss is real, it's about how no despair is so deep that the love of a woman as pretty as Amanda Seyfried can’t cure it. Neither thought is exactly profound.