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Film Editorial

firstreformed.jpg First Reformed
 

Director: Paul Schrader

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger

The very definition of a film of two halves, Paul Schrader’s dour drama looks to Bergman and Bresson for inspiration in the first, before suddenly switching to something far more lurid and clumsily portentous midway. Hawke is Ernst Toller, the reverend of a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He presides over an ever-dwindling flock, but is so wrapped up in his own troubled history – he encouraged his son to serve in Iraq where he was killed - that he is unable to impact on his congregation in any meaningful and positive way. Toller has the devotion of one dowdy middle-aged woman Esther (Hill) who loves him, but he resents her neediness. The set-up is so similar to Bergman’s ‘Winter Light’ here, it feels like a remake. A chance to make a difference occurs when pregnant parishioner Mary (Seyfried) asks Toller to speak to her depressed husband Michael (Ettinger) on her behalf. He is a troubled environmentalist who sees no point in bringing a child into the world. Alas, Toller is unable to reach him and Michael takes his own life. After that Toller begins to read up on environmental issues and discovers some disturbing truths about the company which sponsors his church. Until this point, the film has been the model of austerity, with its suitably serious boxy aspect ratio, fixed static shots, Dutch master-style lighting, and excellent understated performances (Hawke is great). But one ill-advised dream sequence later, and we are deep in exploitation territory with Schrader cannibalizing one of his most accomplished scripts for a resolution. The change of gear may hold a certain gonzo appeal for some, but the admirable high seriousness of the first half is totally undermined and undone in the process. Shame.