The only thing good I can say about Paul Schrader’s new film is that my husband would now like to try the body to body mystical -travel -sans -elevation game. Otherwise, Schrader’s screenplay is a mess. “First Reformed” tries to deal with theological questions about the meaning of life and our stewardship of the Earth, but ends up with a guilty, physically and mentally-ill alcoholic trying to make his suffering mean something. He copies Thomas Merton only in that he writes a daily journal. He tears out the pages he does not like when he feels they were written in delirium. Pride gets in his way. He tells us in one of the frequent voice-overs that “this journal brings me no peace.”
Our reverend goes through all the footwork of religious service: he , ironically, counsels others in hope and despair; he ladles in the soup kitchen; he leads prayer circles; and he makes house calls to pregnant woman in distress over their husband’s depression and eco-terrorist plans. The audience is sympathetic to a point with the daily and lonely grind of a churchman.
And our churchman has a backstory. He sprung from devout stock, was married, had a son, whom he counseled to enlist in military service. The son was killed in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage dissolved in his alcoholism and grief. Reverend Toller was reassigned to a small clapboard church in upstate New York. A museum place from Underground Railroad days with a handful of parishioners, the church is a country of its own, an exile for the emotionally damaged Toller.
The cinematography is stark and telling. One chair, one desk, one candle on a bare wood floor. Loneliness is here, yet the chiaroscuro facial lighting is so Ingmar Bergman that we feel like screaming “copy-cat” instead of breathing in rhythm with the greats. I do not understand the rave reviews this film has received. I can do stark and barren, even appreciate it, but I am an outlier in thinking this is a poor screenplay.
There is some nuanced acting from Cedric Kyles as he plays the mega-church minister Rev. Joel Jeffries. He is worried about Rev. Toller’s depression. Rev. Jeffries counsels his colleague: “ Even Jesus took a break from the Garden, ( of Gethsemane) once in awhile.”
Phillip Ettinger is a fine actor in the part of Mary’s husband, Michael. He has been imprisoned for his activism. We understand him. He intones in his talk with the reverend that “One-third of the natural world has been killed in your lifetime.” His anthropocene take on the second half of this century is laudatory. Even with Ethan Hawke’s voice overs, Rev. Toller is more difficult to fetter out. He is needlessly derisive to the choir director, (Victoria Hill) who is attracted to him. He meanly says, “ I despise you. Your concerns are petty. You are a stumbling block. You are hovering.” Rev. Toller has no trouble biking with the thirty-three-year-old Mary. Even Ethan Hawke’s good acting can’t save this film, or the crazy Rev. Toller.
Director-writer Schrader used old-fashioned credits at the film start. Another tip-off that the ending is going to be arresting, but in this case we just wonder why Rev. Toller did not flinch at any kind of embrace since he is wrapped in thorny wire. This brings me to Mary, the pregnant widow, whom the reverend is so obviously smitten by. Amanda Seyfried has this role, and she is horrid and wooden. She does not cry enough after her husband kills himself. She can’t wait to have Rev. Toller pack up Michael’s things. She has her plan to stay in Buffalo with her sister and have her baby before her husband’s ashes are tossed out of a plastic bag.
The eco-conversion of Rev. Toller is unconvincing. He borrows Michael’s passion, because he has none. He tells us that the petty ailments of a forty-three-year-old make him ill-tempered. Hawke’s seems much older than that and much sicker. He tells us that he has found another form of prayer. Really? In killing?
And what is up with the barbed-wire dramatically found at the last minute to supplant the suicide vest. A crown of thorns for the un-Christ-like sufferer does not work except to turn this film into a horror show of Liquid Plumber. Ingmar Bergman copy-cat filming with chiaroscuro facial lighting and long, white robes is boring. The dolly-rolling-camera technique in the framing of the church edifice and of Michael and Mary’s home is meaningless. The static shots with bare lightbulbs overdone.
Yes, love can make the world go round, but “ Cat People” (1982) was a better movie.