The Churched: “First Reformed”

Paul Schrader‘s First Reformed (2018) gives us a paster, Ernst Toller, with problems.

Enacted by a well-cast Ethan Hawke, Toller does pretty good pastoral work for First Reformed, a church in upstate New York, but he lost a son in Iraq, is divorced from Esther (Victoria Hill), who still loves him, and is ill and often spiritually weak.  Schrader meant the film to be derivative—it is a little too derivative—of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light, but it is also very different from those movies.

After the suicide of a parishioner’s husband—the parishioner is an important character named Mary (Amanda Seyfried)—Toller becomes a temporary madman/radical activist who intends to commit mass murder; but here the film goes astray.  Nothing before this suggests that the pastor is unstable or even eccentric; nothing prepares us for his nutty behavior.  As a character study First Reformed starts limping, although its ending is fascinatingly fine.

The movie boasts themes:  mortification (or laceration) of the flesh, the conflict between spirituality and moral stumbling, love and the human spirit.  But shadows of the Bresson and Bergman films perpetually fall on this product because Reformed is certainly a lesser work.  I disagree with Kenneth Morefield, a reviewer for Christianity Today, that “Paul Schrader has always been a great writer,” but I do think the current picture is riveting.

 

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