“First Reformed” movie review

Analyzing one of the best movies of the year

Paul Schrader is one of the most puzzling filmmakers in Hollywood today. He began his career in 1976 by writing an hallmark movie called “Taxi Driver.” The classic film is about a Vietnam vet who decides to take the law into his own hands.

Roger Ebert, who won a Pulitzer prize for his film criticism, even referred to it as “one of the best and most powerful” movies of all time.

After riding that high, he has been writing and directing mostly direct-to-video trash for the last 40 years. I considered him to be a one-hit wonder, then out of nowhere came “First Reformed,” an A24 film released May 2018.

Left and right, all I heard were great reviews of this film, so of course my expectations were sky high. Usually, when going into a situation with such high expectations, the reality crushes my hopes. But, after finishing this movie, my jaw was practically on the floor.

Not only is “First Reformed” one of my favorite films of the year, but one of my favorite movies of all time.

The movie opens with Ethan Hawke playing the character of Toller, a priest in upstate New York conducting services in a 250-year-old church. He lives a fairly simple and uneventful life until he meets a local pregnant woman, Mary. She is played by the delightful Amanda Seyfried who asks him to talk to her husband who just returned from jail. From these discussions, Toller slowly starts to unravel as he starts to question life itself.

This film is a perplexing, thoughtful character study, portraying one of the most complex and interesting characters put to film. Hawke delivers his best performance in years since “Before Midnight,” and Schrader fires from all cylinders, with not only stellar writing, but the best directed movie this year. He shot the movie in a square aspect ratio, where the movie is displayed as a box instead of the typical widescreen format. This gives the whole film a really unique aesthetic.

His direction helps the viewer focus on the story which weaves through heavy topics effortlessly.

Imagine the amount of brilliance and creativity one would require to address such diverse topics as the effects of global warming and the evolution of religion in recent years. Schrader is able to use these themes to his advantage by employing them fluidly along the story without it feeling obvious or forced. I won’t spoil it, but the ending is simply astounding and will be remembered for years to come.

But, let’s set aside the acting, writing and directing of this movie for a second. Music has a profound impact on the tone of any movie. Hearing the “Jaws” theme, can cause anyone to feel the impending suspense and dread. This movie score is no exception — it sets the bleak tone of the movie. It is almost just white noise which grows more unbearable as Toller starts to go mad.

The cinematography is paired perfectly along with the movie. It has a retro feel to it that reminds me of thrillers such as “The Shining” and “Suspiria.” All of this comes together in an unnerving and suspenseful way that keeps the viewer surprised and engaged.

This movie is not your typical Oscar bait movies such as “La La Land” or “Hidden Figures.” Although it has a slower pace and bigger thoughts and themes, I wholeheartedly recommend this film to everybody.