2. First Reformed
This is a weird year for me now that I’m thinking of it. A lot of my favorite movies came out early in the year which is not usually the case. Studios like to save the good ones for awards season, but I took a liking to quite a few quiet releases in the first half of 2018. “First Reformed” ranking above most of them.
As an atheist, I tend to shrug at movies that deal with faith. I don’t have any skin in that game so it’s hard for me to connect. But First Reformed handles the subject in an interesting way. Reverend Toller is under assault from many different issues. He’s experiencing a crisis of faith, a crisis of conscious, and a crisis of purpose for starters. This is all before he meets a man who introduces him to the extremes of militant environmental activism bordering on terrorism. Paul Shrader’s latest directorial effort harkens back to his work on Taxi Driver. The same issues are being addressed, but this time through the eyes of a much older and wiser character.
Ethan Hawke displays in “First Reformed” exactly why he is so revered. Hawke puts on, simply put, the most striking and technical performance of the year. He so deeply inhabits the role of Reverend Toller. It’s a good thing that he does such a bang-up job on this movie since we literally never leave his side. I don’t think there’s a single scene in which he isn’t the main focus. This is a deep character study on what a person might do when faced with these extreme thoughts.
There’s a scene in “First Reformed” that I wish more movies had the guts to do. Hawke is making his way through a public park where he agreed to meet with one of the people from his congregation. He stops and looks down with a blank stare and the camera cuts to a shot of a dead body with its head blown off lying next to a shotgun. There’s no music or sudden camera movement that cues you in on how to feel. It’s entirely up to the viewer to decide how they feel. Almost all of “First Reformed” takes this approach. Letting the audience make up their mind on how to react. It’s a smart move and I think it opens up an interesting conversation on how different people could have different reactions to the same event.
The finale of “First Reformed” is another weird one. Though you might not think it strange just by watching it, the ending of this movie has many different ways one could interpret it. In the moments before Toller decides to blow up his church with a suicide vest (uhhh spoiler alert), he sees Mary (Amanda Seyfried) enter the church. He removes the vest, wraps himself in barbed wire and pours himself a glass of drain cleaner. Just before he drinks it, we see Mary standing in the door of his home. They share a longing glance and embrace in a passionate kiss as the camera dances circles around them. Shrader offers up his interpretation of this scene which I think is brilliant, but it’s best to experience “First Reformed” for yourself.
It’s certainly not a movie I would expect a lot of people to like as it has a very slow, deliberate and unnerving pace, but there are moments of transcendence in “First Reformed” that hypnotized me. Couple that with Ethan Hawke in possibly the best performance of his already impressive career and it’s no surprise that “First Reformed” made it so high on my list this year.