Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles
Director: Paul Schrader
Running Time: 113 mins
First Reformed is an American film about a Protestant minister who faces intense personal struggles, as he grapples with grief, despair, and the nature of faith.
This film is quite something. Not only a riveting and meditative look at the nature of faith and religion, as well as one of the sharpest religious dramas in years, First Reformed also proves a thrilling watch from beginning to end, with heavy drama and emotion that combines with incredible thematic depth, stunning cinematography, a crisp screenplay, and a spellbinding lead performance from Ethan Hawke, all of which makes for an astonishing watch throughout.
There’s so much to talk about with First Reformed, and that’s largely because it’s a film that has a lot to say, which is what makes it such an intriguing watch. Above all, its discussion of themes of faith and morality are enthralling, as it grapples with complex emotional themes, following a dedicated priest as he begins to find himself in ever-growing doubt about the religion that he preaches.
The film has a very heavy-going and often even bleak atmosphere throughout, something that furthers the weightiness of those central themes, yet with its quiet nature and slow pace, it’s a film that gives you a lot of time to think and ponder about its main ideas, and while there are a few moments in its second half that admittedly do lose the same striking clarity and depth, it offers up a far more engrossing and accessible meditation on religion than almost any other film.
That’s one of the things that really impressed me about the film, too, is that its portrayal of religion is a far more grounded and accessible one. Many modern films tend to show religion – particularly Christianity – as an outdated, archaic mythology, simply because it’s an easy target, but this film manages to look past those stereotypes, and instead delve deeper into what makes it all tick, and just how strong the relationship between a man and his faith is, something that makes for an emotionally engrossing and powerful watch throughout.
And that’s where Ethan Hawke’s performance comes in. Once again, many films paint a picture of priests as these ancient and rather cartoonish people who live at the beck and call of their antequated belief system, but Hawke’s performance and Schrader’s directing give us a totally different perspective on both the role of a priest, as well as their own considerations, something that’s very rarely put on display in such frank fashion.
Hawke’s performance is as such a very grounded and relatable one, simply portraying a normal man with a passion and deep faith for his religion, but at the same time crafting a character that follows the trajectory of the story’s development perfectly, allowing for uncertainty and change to creep in as he too suffers with personal insecurity, rather than sticking with the typically rigid and fairly dull portrayal that many take with priests on screen.
So, as well as covering deep and heavy-going themes, First Reformed is a powerful and personal film, with stunning emotional depth that develops to extents that you would not believe at first, yet manages to keep you thoroughly engrossed as an entire saga of terrifying doubt plays out in the mind of our main man.
Now, that’s where the film’s screenplay comes in. Again, films are too often overly keen to go with an archaic, traditional style of dialogue when dealing with religion, and while First Reformed doesn’t shy away from that, is also keeps its feet on the ground with a clear and effective screenplay that prioritises getting its messages and emotions across rather than going for an antique religious vibe.
Starting in spellbinding fashion with a long but deeply engrossing religious counsel from the reverend, the film ties a series of intimate conversations together with the inner monologue and turmoil of the main character, and with crisply-written dialogue that makes every twist and turn utterly enthralling, there’s never a dull moment, and absolutely no opportunity to turn away from the screen, because you’ll certainly miss something.
Furthered by stark cinematography that mirrors both the bleak nature of a loss of faith, as well as the intimate and personal connection that the film allows you to connect with the characters, First Reformed is quite an exceptional film from beginning to end, with a thrilling story that keeps you totally hooked at every moment, thanks to a brilliant screenplay, stunning directing, an incredible lead performance, and a measured and effective take on religion that many films need to look at and learn from.
It’s not an easy watch, and its dark and often bleak drama isn’t for the faint-hearted, but there’s no denying what a fantastic piece of cinema it is, and that’s why I’m giving First Reformed an 8.2 overall.