Friday, May 18, 2018

Movie with Abe: First Reformed

First Reformed
Directed by Paul Schrader
Released May 18, 2018

Religion is something that has the power to guide a person’s life, and those who choose to seek ordination of some sort dedicate themselves to serving a higher purpose. What that looks like in any given religion might be completely unrecognizable to another, but in America, the history of Christianity is strong and the members of its clergy high in number. Due to its prevalence in the early days of the country and before its founding, there are many institutions whose physical buildings still stand but whose operations and congregations have outgrown their humble beginnings.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of such an establishment in upstate New York, a Dutch Reform church that now serves more as a museum than a functioning parish, with just a few attending services each week while the masses frequent the far more industrial parent church, Abundant Life, that officially controls Toller’s building and is planning its 250th anniversary celebration. Toller is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant congregant worried about her activist environmentalist husband’s views on the world and the future they might bring their child into, prompting serious introspection from Toller and a dangerous descent into destructive behavior.

This film begins with stylized title cards that make the film’s setting feel dated, with Toller himself seeming like a relic, sporting a flip cell phone and living a minimalist lifestyle despite having plenty of space and means. The ideas he is introduced to about environmental decay and the political forces doing nothing to stop it are extremely specific, and the alcoholic whose health is not great from the start begins to find some sense of purpose that he has been lacking, especially as he learns that a major donor to his church is one of the most unabashed offenders.

Hawke has been working hard lately, and this performance, however committed, pales in comparison to recent, far more entertaining turns in “Stockholm” and “Juliet, Naked.” Seyfried has also been much better, but the role leaves a great deal to be desired. The casting of Cedric the Entertainer as the leader of Abundant Life proves extremely distracting, shifting too much of the focus off of Toller’s more subdued preacher. Writer-director Paul Schrader, best known for penning the screenplays to “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” has quite a reputation, but this desolate, dreary drama fails to latch on to interesting characters and believable dialogue, spiraling into a nonsensical fever dream that hardly does justice to its premise.


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