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Posts Tagged ‘First Reformed’

By one of those weird little resonant coincidences which might almost make a person believe in stuff beyond the humdrum quotidian, we currently have a situation where two films on release feature an uncanny degree of similarity in one element of the script. Were you to mosey down to your local UK cinema and say ‘I want a ticket for the film… I can’t quite remember the title… it’s the one where Amanda Seyfried has recently become pregnant but is having trouble in her marriage… can you help?’ you would be basically be taking a gamble. While this is essentially a large chunk of the premise to Mamma Mia! Oh No Not Again, currently occupying an unfeasibly large number of screens in the UK, it is also an essentially accurate description of the set-up to First Reformed.

I would say it is a very good idea to get your pregnant Amanda Seyfried films sorted out before heading to the cinema, because they are in other respects cut from slightly different cloth. The Mamma Mia! sequel is a fluffy, glittery, feel-good piece of froth that doesn’t make many demands of the brain from anywhere much higher than the medulla oblongata; its sole intent is to distract and delight. First Reformed, on the other hand… well, I’m reminded of a Stephen King quote about the literary style of James Herbert – who, according to King, performed the equivalent of grabbing you by the collar and screaming in your face.

This should not come as much surprise once one learns that the writer-director of First Reformed is Paul Schrader, a veteran film-maker long renowned as the grim observer of a certain kind of damaged masculinity: he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, not to mention The Last Temptation of Christ. You don’t go to a Paul Schrader film for a cheery Swedish power-pop singalong. You go there to have the harsh realities of modern life scraped across your face like a handful of broken glass, and First Reformed really delivers on this score.

Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, pastor in charge of the small, little-attended ‘tourist church’ First Reformed, in upstate New York. Toller has a broken marriage and an intense personal tragedy behind him; he is a lonely man, not in the best of health either physically or mentally, perhaps actually very sick indeed. As the film begins he has just begun keeping a journal of his private thoughts, primarily (it seems) to justify the voice-over which Hawke delivers throughout the movie.

The church is about to reopen for its 250th anniversary, the renovation having been bankrolled by various wealthy local businessmen. Toller is more preoccupied with the lot of one of his flock, a young woman named Mary (Seyfried). She is with child, but concerned by her husband’s response to this news. He is an environmental campaigner, though one who has now fallen somewhat into despondency, and feels it is a fundamentally selfish act to bring a new life into a world which will soon be ravaged by the consequences of human-caused climate change.

Well, this has a big impact on Toller, but how should he respond to it? The very men his church is so reliant on are industrialists and polluters on a massive scale. His superiors in the church do not seem very sympathetic either. It’s almost enough to make a man, even a priest, contemplate the darkest of notions…

So, and I’m not sure I even need to reiterate this again but let’s be on the safe side, not a great many laughs in this one. The trailer for First Reformed looked interesting, and the 94% approval rating it enjoys on a popular solanaceous review aggregator site also suggested it might be worth a look, but I was especially intrigued when a couple of people from work went to see it and came back grumbling loudly. ‘Awful. I fell asleep. It’s so slow. Not what you’d call entertainment,’ was the capsule version of their collective opinion.

Well, I can kind of see where they’re coming from, as even at the viewing I attended, someone behind me stood up at the end and announced with a huge grin ‘It was even bleaker than I’d hoped!’ You would have to be some kind of sociopath to come out of First Reformed skipping and whistling: this is a film which will test you and attempt to shred your soul. Not in any particularly explicit, horrific way – this is first and foremost a personal drama. But it is about as heavy a drama as I can remember seeing at a UK cinema, recently at least.

Initially the film seems content to deal in a sort of non-specific gloominess, as various scenes of Toller drinking too much, peeing blood and sitting in darkened rooms with his head in his hands are intercut with gloomy pronouncements about the state of environment and the theological ramifications and aspects of this. You do wonder where it is going and, indeed, what it’s actually about.

Eventually things acquire a little clarity, and it seems to me that while the film does have some interesting and perhaps challenging things to say about environmentalism and how society deals with this issue, it is really about hope and despair. How does a sensible person fend off despair these days? How can you maintain any sense of hope in the era of Trump, Brexit, accelerating climatic disaster, the collapse of western civilisation as we have known it, and the prospect of any number of apocalyptic futures?

It is, to say the least, a very considerable challenge – or so the film seems to suggest. Unsympathetic viewers might say that First Reformed goes off the deep end in the sheer scale of its darkness and willingness to toy with disturbing notions and imagery. If it were made with less commitment and focus, and had a less impressive performance than Hawke’s at its heart, it might become risible and preposterous, not to mention extremely tasteless, towards the end. The film still often feels like a calculated act of provocation against normal standards of good and bad taste, and it does make unusual demands of the viewer – there’s a sequence towards the end which had me going ‘What the hell…?’ so abruptly and thoroughly surreal is it.

The fact remains, though, that this is still clearly a highly intelligent film, the product of a distinctive directorial vision, and lifted by a superb performance from Ethan Hawke. There are big questions about faith and society being asked here, even if the answers that are given seem provisional at best. First Reformed is absolutely not for everyone, and contains material likely to disturb and perhaps even offend – but if you like some slightly more demanding, chewy material in your cinematic intake, then this is a film with the potential to satisfy you.

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