For the first time since “Boyhood,” I have found an Ethan Hawke performance so mesmerizing, so profound, so memorable, and so bold, it has to be seen to be believed. “First Reformed” shows us something we may or may not have seen before. It’s about fighting your inner demons, and whether or not you can overcome them.
Hawke plays Toller, a priest at the First Reformed Church in Upstate New York, who decides to hand write a journal about his thoughts and troubles. He has stomach issues and hematuria, and struggles to overcome a dark past of his.
Amanda Seyfried plays a young pregnant church goer named Mary, whose activist husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger) is thinking about aborting his child to keep him/her from growing up in a polluted world.
There’s a riveting conversation between Toller and Michael as one tries to tell him people have suffered through worse causes, and the other saying activists have been murdered while trying to help the planet.
And Cedric the Entertainer (or Cedric Kyles as the film prefers to call him) plays a fellow pastor, who is concerned about Toller’s wellbeing, since he doesn’t visit him much. And even his ex-wife (Victoria Hill, also a producer) thinks he needs treatment.
The rest of the film shows Toller thinking about if God will forgive mankind for what people do to his creation. He looks up companies that cause the most pollution, and his tensions thicken.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”), “First Reformed is mostly unpredictable with how the main character struggles with his illness, and how he intends to overcome it. Hawke gives that character with such emotions and stress, it easily becomes one of his best performances to date. With great supporting work from Seyfried, Kyles, Hill, and Ettinger, you don’t know how lucky you are to have a thriller that doesn’t jump to conclusions, but keeps you guessing from beginning to end.
And I especially loved the way the film was shot on a 4:3 ratio. If you don’t know what I mean, it’s like watching a square on a big screen TV. The way the characters are placed really keeps you looking. I love the way these kind of movies are filmed.
It took a while for me to adapt to the situations a bit, but I’ve succeeded in finding out the true nature of it all. Most thrillers these days assume affairs and bullets are the way to go, but “First Reformed” is more about personality and mental struggles.