By Olivia Norwood, Edited by Julia Wilson
So far this year filmmakers and actors have already brought us Oscar potential films and performances. First Reformed is that film and its star, Ethan Hawke, gave that performance. However, the story is what really draws an audience member in.
Hawke portrays Toller, the reverend of an old, overshadowed church, First Reformed. Dealing with issues of his own (alcoholism and cancer) he’s asked by churchgoer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to speak to her radical, environmentalist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who becomes paranoid when Mary announces her pregnancy.
As he begins counseling him, Toller forms an obsession with climate, pollution, global warming, and other widely feared environmental dangers while questioning himself, his faith, and his ethics. It’s a period of transcendence for the reverend that progressively overtakes him and devolves into something more – something much darker.
Christian symbolism plays a large part in First Reformed considering religion is the entire basis for the plot. Not only does writer and director Paul Schrader highlight the most widely worshipped symbols from the Bible, but he also brings the most gruesome ones. Between a pregnant woman named Mary and Toller wrapping his bare body in barbed wire (Jesus in thorns), Schrader made sure we’d have those crystallized images embedded in our brains.
Throughout the film, Toller keeps a diary to express his thoughts and feelings (as most people do), but it also shows the inner workings of his mind and how different it is to his outer self. He’s calm, timorous, and small on the outside, while being meticulous and self-deprecating on the inside. The reserved and religious man worries himself with ailments of others and the world instead of the well-being of his own. He even plots to sacrifice himself via suicide vest in order to “save” others with the exception of destroying a few lives to do so.
The portrayal of this character is so sincere that by the end, Hawke isn’t just “playing” Rev. Toller. He is Rev. Toller.
First Reformed leaves the audience intrigued and rattled with its daunting performances and story that it’s nearly impossible to comprehend how one can create such a masterpiece.
My Rating: 98%