A film to bleed to death to.
Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) oversees a small upstate New York church — active continuously for 250 years. Living modestly and alone in the rectory behind it, Toller begins a one-year journal for an undisclosed purpose, citing that it will be destroyed once completed. Inside he chronicles a request from a parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to confront the distancing behavior of her activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). The two share concerns about the state of the world and what’s to come, but the perceived connection abruptly ends, forcing Toller to reflect inwardly. Facing the demons of his past and an uncertain future with too much time on his hands, the reverend contemplates drastic measures in his search for meaning… and in some way, to matter at all.
It’s clear from the slow initial push-in fade-up that this film has art-house (read: awards) intent, lingering too long on shots of our principle setting. It conveys solitude but not expressly loneliness; it feels peaceful — timeless in its unconcern of the world passing it by. Unfortunately, characters are introduced afterward, people with pasts and motivations who occupy space and time. At some point, it’s expected that one or more of them might do something… anything, for any reason at all. How long can viewers hold out before chewing their own arms off to escape this continuous monotony?
Fine: it’s not utterly boorish, but it’s close. Without giving too much away — which is difficult since so little happens — Ethan Hawke appears to want to do something, needs to do something, and comes very close to doing something… yet nothing gets done. With the exception of a bizarre out-of-body experience like throwaway footage from La La Land’s observatory dance scene before ending up in a swamp full of toxic waste, the lone camera is planted in scene after scene as if to capture an endless series of tableaux; Alfonso Cuarón managed this to far better effect for Roma. In contrast, this film champions “lingering awkward angles” as substance, successfully making viewers feel as numb inside as the main character.
Contributing to Toller’s (and the viewer’s) impending despair is his “historic” church and souvenir store being treated like the mongrel adopted pet of Abundant Life, a corporate-sponsored megachurch whose local branch is run by Reverend Jeffers (played by Cedric “the Entertainer” Antonio Kyles). Less so in the choir scenes, the megachurch seems as hollow and empty as everything else, so nothing to look forward to there. Amanda Seyfried is wholly wasted as well, often showing the same emotionless expression when she occasionally and abruptly appears without rhyme or reason. It’s possible even the reverend’s journal wants to kill itself, which admittedly would have been interesting to watch.
Scenes are filled with awkward silence as characters emote at one another and ignore periodic questions before going back to their own contemplative brooding silences. When something does happen — “A dead body? Yay!” — no one reacts beyond the moment. Paraphrasing: “He’s dead? Yup. And it killed him? Uh huh.” Having no one to contrast Hawke’s Toller to is a key problem throughout the film; everyone in his world seems equally strained and unsociable. Compared to the coin-flipped sisters Justine and Claire in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia displaying depression as a state of being, First Reformed feels like its missing a necessary point-of-view, leaving all else as an exercise in futility… plus a somewhat-cool one-sheet poster.
First Reformed is rated R for some disturbing violent images and lulling viewers into an early grave.
One skull recommendation out of four
There are just so many points where something seemed to be about to happen, then didn’t.
It’s one of those flicks where you just know the ambiguous, unexplained ending sidesteps the impossible denouement and cuts to the credited, twisting the knife as it’s pushed to the bone.
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