First Reformed

First Reformed

BannisterBannister   September 23, 2017  
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First Reformed

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First Reformed, in upstate New York, is a tourist-trap church that no one actually attends. Once, long ago, this place served as a way-station on the Underground Railroad, providing shelter for runaway slaves en route to Canada. Now the church is preserved as a pretty antique, a clapboard white elephant propped up by a Christian conglomerate called Abundant Life and bankrolled by a billionaire industrialist who pollutes the environment. Its planned reconsecration is just a ghastly charade.

First Reformed's hero is a "country priest" — those who know the Bernanos novel The Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson's screen adaption, and Schrader's own important 1972 critical study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer will understand the connections. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, an ex-military chaplain who, while grieving the death of his son, decides to keep a journal. He begins with a subject that forms the basis of the film: his meeting with an expectant couple. The husband is an environmentalist conflicted about bringing a child into the world. His wife (Amanda Seyfried), deeply sensitive, reaches out to the minister for advice and comfort. Toller, reeling from both the loss of his own child and a chain of unexpected events, finds his faith tested.

Devoted to writing with blunt honesty in a journal, Toller is still tortured with guilt over having pushed his son into the army, leading to his death and Toller's own abandonment by his wife. “Courage is the answer to despair,” this Thomas Merton fan tells him as he ponders whether or not Jesus worried about being liked.
A rare occasion for personal involvement in someone else's life arises when young parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller for help in reeling in the extremist environmental activities of her husband; although convinced the world will become unlivable any day now, he apparently can't wait even that long, as Mary has found a suicide vest he's hidden away.

The film premiered on Aug. 31 at the Venice Film Festival, followed by screenings at Telluride and Toronto. A24 plans a 2018 release.

The producers are Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, and Deepak Sikka. The production companies are Killer Films, Fibonacci Films, Omeira Studio Partners, and Arclight Films. Arclight is handling international rights to the project with CAA co-repping North America.

While the themes and import of First Reformed connect with complete clarity, there's also a certain methodical manner in which Schrader, and his main character, go about their business; there's not quite enough oomph or style in the filmmaking to make you forget about the schematic nature of the dramatic construct. Even while admiring the integrity and intellectual seriousness with which the drama presents religious struggle, a rare thing in contemporary American cinema, you still feel every one of the film's 113 minutes. The movie's concerns are obvious, not subtle, and while intellectual energy abounds, laying in subtext, building underlying tension physical and creating visual dynamism are not Schrader's strong suits.

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