First Reformed (2018)
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Actors: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer
It's strange. Watching films for such a long time and still getting tricked about the content of a movie. I can usually tell where the film is going within the first 20 minutes. The last time I remember being faked out by a film was Mulholland Drive, and that was worth the trick to be honest. Going into First Reformed, I had no expectations. I knew that I liked Ethan Hawke, and that it was directed by the writer of Taxi Driver. That's about it. During the first 20 minutes of the film, I was enjoying myself. I felt like this would be a character driven film that gripped the viewer with the intricate life of a lonely priest. Halfway through the film I began to realize this movie wasn't what I thought it was. And I don't know how to feel about that.... Here are my thoughts.
Alright, lets get down to the nitty gritty. This is a film about climate change and global warming. I think that is fairly obvious because around half way the director is not shy of letting you know his stance on the whole ordeal. Now, before I start critiquing this aspect of the film, I just want to say that this topic is very important to me. If you know me, you have probably seen me countless times arguing till the last second about global warming and how we have affected the world. Nevertheless, this film still has me conflicted. It reminds me a lot of last year's "Mother!". In that film, I liked the approach it had to delivering the message, but I absolutely hated the execution. With First Reformed, its the opposite.... Somewhat. I love the way the film was executed, but I don't think I enjoyed the approach. I say "I don't think" because I still need to wrap my head around things. The reason I am currently not too keen on the approach is the level of blatancy the director had when conveying his message. With these sort of films I would have much preferred if the message was a bit more subtle. Otherwise why not just make a documentary so that you can just straight away say what you want. I know some people might say "this message is important and it needs to be clear so that audiences can understand". I get that, but it is sometimes off-putting because it sort of brings me straight out of the film. During the first like 40 minutes I was totally into the world of the film. Then the message started getting more straightforward and more blatant. And suddenly I felt like I was watching an awareness video in between a film. I don't know whether or not these feelings will stick with me as the days go by. But currently I just wish some points weren't as shoe-horned in as they are now. This is not to say what the film did was bad. On the contrary. All I'm saying is that I don't prefer this type of approach. I enjoy films that can have many interpretations while still reaching the ultimate message the director wanted to put out there. With how blatant the message was here, I don't think there is any room for interpretation. The film is taking climate change and looking at it from a religious point of view. Which is definitely an admirable cause. Again, I just wish the approach was a little bit different. Just a little.
Now I know that it may seem like I did not enjoy/like this film based on my previous paragraph, but I really did enjoy it. As I said before, I think the execution was very well done. The aesthetics, camera work, feel, acting, soundtrack, and everything else just fit in nicely. However the greatest strength of the film is not its message, but I feel like it is the character of Reverend Toller. At the essence of this movie is a character film. The whole film is the journey of Toller as a character and how he evolves by the surrounding influences. I liked the fact that we were not spoon fed everything about him as a person. It allowed the viewer to fit in the pieces together and figure out this strange person. Throughout the film we were able to witness a seemingly well established priest be conflicted by guilt. The film is a great example of morality and ethics. The main quote of this film is "Will god forgive us?". That is a very powerful statement that allows the viewer to ponder and come to their own conclusion. Even if they are irreligious, they can still think about this moral dilemma and see how someone might respond to it. These are the sort of aspects I found greatest in this film. The subtle nuances that allows the viewer to think even when you have turned off the film and are having dinner. The thoughts continue to fester in your mind and they challenge your beliefs. This is what this film does right flawlessly. Although I didn't appreciate the way it gave out the messages about climate change so blatantly (e.g. the montage when they were on the "magical journey"), I do appreciate these subtle questions that the audience is kept with. It has definitely impacted me and it is why I am so conflicted about this film.
Now, I think the big elephant in the room is obvious, the ending. That abrupt cut just left me feeling like... Really? That was the ending you chose. As I thought about it some more it kind of made sense. But I am still not 100% sold on it. I don't have a really deep interpretation for the ending. All I could think of was that it was strange how Reverend Jeffers was unable to come into Toller's house while Mary was easily and conveniently able to come in with ease at the perfect moment. It somewhat makes me wonder whether or not what happened was actually "real". It feels like the sort of ending you would get from Hollywood executives just to tie everything into a beautiful knot. Which is why I'm suspicious of it. There has to be something that points to a deeper meaning or interpretation. As of this moment, I have no clue what that "something" is. If anyone has their own opinion, I will gladly read your thoughts if you tweet at me. All in all, the ending had me puzzled. I was initially taken aback, but once I thought of it more, I felt like there was something missing. I may be wrong, but I hope I'm not.
This was a strange film for me. On one hand I enjoyed so many aspects of this film. Most of the technical elements were done beautifully (cinematography, acting, soundtrack... etc.). However, I am still conflicted as to the approach of the film to giving out it's message. The blatant imagery of the polluted ocean or how some of the dialogue played out just took me out of the film. Schrader went too hard in my eyes, and it hurt my full enjoyment of this film. But hey, I'm just one person. Everyone else may disagree with me, and that's fine. At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that the overall message of the film is an important one. And it is something that must be discussed. I am glad to be able to further that conversation.