Wednesday, June 26, 2019

"First Reformed": review

I'm really not sure what to think about "First Reformed," a 2017 drama written and directed by Paul Schrader, starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Victoria Hill, and Cedric the Entertainer. Perhaps I'll have a clearer idea of what to think when I finish writing this review. The movie is beautifully acted, and some parts of it are amazingly scripted, but the story's arc gets a full dose of teh krayzee by the third act, and I honestly had trouble relating to what had seemed to be a profound and moving story unfurling before me. Think of "First Reformed" as a perfect paper airplane that, when thrown, flies beautifully for a long time before suddenly wobbling and unceremoniously crashing to the ground. As with all performances, what matters is whether you stick the landing because one's final impression of a performance is often one's most lasting impression of it. A movie that's 80% profound and 20% silly at the end will be remembered for the silly. That, in essence, is my problem with "First Reformed."

The First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, New York, is a tiny white chapel with roots reaching back two hundred and fifty years. Once a stop along the Underground Railroad, First Reformed is now sparsely attended, surviving mostly as a tourist attraction under the guardianship of the much larger, 5000-seat Abundant Life congregation, based in Albany. Pastor Ernst Toller (Hawke)—whose name has significance in both English and German—is the minister for First Reformed. When the movie begins, Toller tells us via voiceover that he has decided to maintain a journal for a year. The journal functions as several things: an attempt at communion with the divine, an awkward form of prayer, and a place for Toller to pour out his unedited thoughts, thus allowing for a merciless form of self-criticism.

Toller has a lot on his mind and heart: his past haunts him because he lost his son Joseph in Iraq, after which his wife left him. He also has to contend with bloody urine, bloody stools, bloody coughs, and general weakness, which all seem to point toward something cancer-like raging inside him, but he keeps up his heavy drinking and other bad habits, unmindful of the stealthy approach of that glowering tiger, karma. Along with alcohol, Toller—a Protestant—tries to drown his sorrows by reading the work of Catholic mystics like Thomas Merton.* The organist at his parish, John Elder (Bill Hoag), is concerned for him, as is the pastor of Abundant Life, Joel Jeffers (Cedric). Also concerned for him is Esther (Hill), with whom Toller apparently has something of an uncomfortable past: the story implies that Toller and Esther had briefly been in a sexual relationship after Toller's wife had left him. Esther, a kind-hearted soul, still carries a torch for Toller, but lately, he's having none of it, perhaps because he views his tryst with Esther as an embarrassing lapse, a moment of moral weakness.

Also in Toller's parish are Mary and Michael Mensana (Seyfried and Philip Ettinger), a quiet young couple. Mary, who is more religious than Michael, wants the good reverend to speak with her husband: she's pregnant, and her husband, an environmental activist who gets in trouble with the police and suffers bouts of depression, doesn't want to bring a child into a world that he believes is on the verge of collapse thanks to humanity's depredations against nature. Toller and Michael have a cautious sit-down that turns passionate when Michael, in talking about the impending death of the world, gives in to his despair and becomes emotional. Toller ends his visit by suggesting that he and Michael meet again; he writes about this encounter in his journal, and it's obvious that he's deeply touched by Michael's genuine concern for the planet and all of its life.

Mary pages Toller later, asking him to come quickly to the Mensana residence. There, she shows Toller something she had found tucked away: a suicide vest, fully rigged with explosives. Alarmed, but also unwilling to involve the police, Toller promises to take the vest and dispose of it, then to speak with Michael again, this time directly addressing the issue of the suicide vest. An arrangement is made for the pastor and Michael to meet; Michael ends up changing the meeting venue to a nearby park. Toller arrives to find Michael's corpse: Michael has blown his own head off with a shotgun.

Michael's death, which occurs early in the film and isn't much of a spoiler, is the event that gets the plot moving because it affects Toller deeply: despite not being overtly religious, Michael was willing to die for his beliefs while Toller, undergoing a crisis of faith, has lately felt disconnected from the divine. I'll do my best not to spoil the rest of the plot; suffice it to say that, in the background of all this, First Reformed's 250th anniversary and reconsecration are coming up, with Abundant Life largely taking the lead and handling all the details of the ceremony. Toller also has to deal with Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a rich and powerful industrialist who has done his part to keep First Reformed financially afloat, and who is arrogant and entitled as a result, even while his companies continue both to pollute the environment and to provide significant funding to Abundant Life—thus keeping Pastor Jeffers from complaining about Balq.

Here's what "First Reformed" does well: for most of its running time, it gives us a fairly realistic portrait of one very human and fallible pastor. The character of Ernst Toller is well developed and dimensional; for most of the movie, the viewer feels for him. We get his sadness, his anger, and his frustration. We understand why he is so moved by Michael's suicide—moved from contemplation to action of his own. We resonate with his loneliness, his repeated rejection of Esther's gentle overtures. Toller's cruel outburst against Esther isn't surprising: the man is a wounded animal who is irrationally rejecting all aid. God seems absent, and the works of the mystics provide no real comfort. What Toller wants is reconnection—communion—with something deep. Around Toller are the other characters in the film, also excellently portrayed by the entire cast. Cedric the Entertainer (billed in the credits as "Cedric Kyles") is a true surprise in his role as the loud, affable, and worldly Pastor Jeffers. Amanda Seyfried, who has become somewhat less annoying to me over time (like Ethan Hawke himself), does a fine job portraying a young widow who is lost and alone, and also in need of some form of human connection. I also have to tip my hat to Philip Ettinger, who plays the ill-fated Michael Mensana: the guy sells the role. I'm not anywhere near the nutty environmentalist that his character is, but Ettinger thoroughly convinces me of Michael's sense of urgency and doom. Ettinger makes the moral question of bringing a child into a dying world feel real to me, and that's about as high a compliment as I can pay to any actor. Hats off, as well, to the director—at least for the first two-thirds of the film. The pacing, the buildup of tension—these factors are all expertly handled.

Where things go wrong for me, and it pains me to write this, is the film's third act. Without revealing what happens, I can say that pregnant and vulnerable Mary Mensana receives a moment of deep spiritual communion by way of an act of intimacy that could have cynically tumbled into the sexual realm, but didn't. My problem with that soaring, spiritual scene is that it took me immediately out of the film which, up to that point, had been brutally realistic in its portrayal of people in the midst of personal crises. I don't know what director Paul Schrader was thinking, frankly, when he decided to flip the chess table over and go from empathetic vérité to fantastical pablum. One reason why I like watching movies with my two brothers is that, if my brothers see something happen on screen that seems like bullshit to them, they'll point at the screen and laugh their asses off. I imagined my brothers sitting with me, and when the scene in question occurred, I laughed loud and hard in spite of myself: I had genuinely been taken by surprise. Mary's weird communion involves someone else, a partner whose own spiritual vision curdles from galaxies and stars and mountains to vast stretches of toxic waste and endless rivers clogged with filthy plastic containers. I got the metaphorical import of this communion scene; if anything, it was way too heavy-handed and on-the-nose. Again, I had to wonder what the hell Paul Schrader was thinking.

But the movie becomes even more ridiculous than this, and I'm sorely tempted to reveal the details of its finale. (I won't, though.) On the one hand, the finale makes some sense because it's the plausible endpoint of an increasingly desolate trajectory. On the other hand, the specific actions taken by the despondent character strike me both as utterly ridiculous, and as not at all in keeping with what I know about men of the cloth, most of whom are not child molesters, greedy gangsters, drunkards, or other forms of scum. The third act of "First Reformed" left me wondering whether Schrader was suddenly trying for comedy. I'm fairly sure he wasn't, but I can't shake the feeling that he had pulled in a little too much of the ridiculous for the film to handle. That's utterly on Schrader, not his actors: the man is credited as the writer, and he was the main guy behind the camera. Whatever problems I've perceived in this film have everything to do with the screenwriting and not with anything else.

I can't help but contrast this movie with the much better "Calvary" (reviewed here). The parallels between these two films are rather obvious. Both stories apparently took partial inspiration from Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest). Both stories feature troubled men of the cloth who are facing impending death, all while having to minister to a sparse congregation that doesn't seem to have much faith in anything. In both stories, the holy men are beset by various antagonists, most of whom see the striving toward godliness as futile. But "Calvary," which marketed itself as both a drama and a black comedy, handles the humor/horror dimension of its plot much better than does "First Reformed." Director Schrader could have learned much by studying "Calvary" and understanding how it had been put together. "Calvary" marches toward its sad, brutal, cynical, yet strangely uplifting conclusion; "First Reformed," by contrast, utterly fails to stick the landing. The latter film's final moment struck me as both asinine and completely predictable: two of the movie's characters were destined to end up together; the signs were painfully obvious, and all those glib clichés about "two lost souls rescuing each other" came nauseatingly to mind.

There is, however, a school of thought out there that claims the final scene is merely a vision occurring in one character's febrile, collapsing imagination. The strongest evidence for this is that a door that had been visibly, provably locked in an earlier scene is somehow magically unlocked in the final scene, thus indicating that the final scene is, well, the final fantasy of a dying brain. Even if this is true, though, the disjunction between the final scene and the first two-thirds of the film is too violent and, to my mind, unjustified. To use the ecclesiastical metaphor: it's a fart in a church.

It hurts me to write all of this about "First Reformed"—it really does. I so wanted to like this movie, but I felt that Paul Schrader yanked us from what could have been a human and humanistic tale in order to expose us to something far more dramatic and unrealistic. The communion symbolism was heavy-handed, and the change in plot and tone was jarring, not nearly as satisfying as the sudden flight into fantasy that happens at the very end of "The Florida Project." This could have been such a good movie. Instead, it ended up ringing false to my religious-studies ears and being such a colossal disappointment. What a waste.

*Catholic-Protestant cross-pollination isn't surprising or extraordinary; branches of Christianity have, in the modern age, become remarkably ecumenical. Still, it's interesting to see Toller reaching beyond his own tradition's writers and thinkers for the solace he craves.


Charles said...

Hmm. I had heard good things about this and was looking forward to seeing it at some point. Kind of disappointing to hear about the third act, as I was hoping it would be... well, something like what you were hoping it would be.

Kevin Kim said...

Your mileage may vary. If you're a fan of cinematic symbolism, you might get more out of the experience than I did. Then again, my understanding is that, compared to me, New Yorkers tend to be more cynical, and to have finer-tuned Bullshit-O-meters, so you might end up howling in the same spots of the movie where I did.

Charles said...

It is still on my (way too long) list of things to see, but I am a bit wary now.

Kevin Kim said...

Well... enjoy, I guess. I'll be curious to hear/read your reaction.