Dealing with faith in a feature is often a difficult topic to touch upon, and has often caused major uproar for films that take the wrong approach. First Reformed, directed by veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader, looks to address the issue of the loss of faith, and not just the belief in a religion, leaving a huge impact on its characters lives, and a wider impact on the character’s community.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) leads the First Reformed Church, a small building located in the state of New York, remaining close to his congregation and the community around him despite declining numbers. Even though his health begins to deteriorate, Toller continues to work, visiting a young expecting couple in their home upon their request. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is excited for the birth of her first child but husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) is fearful of the world their newborn would grow up in. As Toller speaks to Michael, he discovers how closed-minded he has been in the past, looking back on his sheltered living with confusion.
First Reformed is a wonderful product of its own making, taking its story in a terrifying personal direction and coming to its bizarrely logical conclusion, however easy it would be to deny it as so. At the centre, Ethan Hawke plays a beautifully misleading man who seems at odds with himself in almost every possible way. The way Hawke projects his confusion despite a consistent outward demeanour is incredibly impressive, becoming the fore-frontal reason First Reformed remains so powerful and compelling.
The dialogue is excellent with conversations that not only foreshadow the film’s final moments but explain so much about a character with often so little to him. Shrader has carried out an excellent methodology in turning the script into an equally brilliant piece of film, but is extensively aided by the majestic cinematography from Alexander Dynan, evoking the feel of a small town hiding secrets on every corner. The combination of these impressive features goes a long way to giving First Reformed its powerfully unique feel.
Hawke makes the film, but without the support of stylistic direction, an engaging script and its exceptional photography, First Reformed wouldn’t be able to produce the impact it does. The film is absolutely all about its talking-point ending, but it wouldn’t even be a whisper-point were its beginnings not quite so brilliant.
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