I feel like there should be a joke here, Ethan Hawke playing a priest who drinks bourbon and pepto, but I just can’t think of it. And am I the only one who has no idea what the movie is about based on the trailer alone? Sure hope not.
If I had a guess, a pastor with shaken faith is called by a girl whose… boyfriend, husband, whoever, he is, has become something of an extremist and… I have no idea, has radical political and social views that shake the pastor to his very core. It doesn’t look like he’s dangerous or anything, just a plain ole nut ball.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Ethan Hawke (MAUDIE , THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN , and the upcoming STOCKHOLM ), Amanda Seyfried (GRINGO , THE LAST WORD , PAN , and the upcoming MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN ), Cedric the Entertainer (BARBERSHOP: THE NEXT CUT ), and Michael Gaston (BRIDGE OF SPIES , TV show JERICHO [2006 – 2008], and the upcoming THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS ).
Now for the crew. Writing and directing is Paul Schrader, known for directing a bunch of stuff that I never heard of, but has written RAGING BULL (1980) and TAXI DRIVER (1976). Composing the score is Brian Williams, known for stuff I’ve never heard of. The cinematographer is Alexander Dynan, known for stuff I’ve never heard of. Finally, the editor is Benjamin Rodriguez Jr., known for stuff I’ve never heard of.
Overall, I don’t know how good this will be, but Hawke’s always a fun watch, so if nothing else, the talent will be the highlight. Looks atmospheric enough to be enjoyable, so lets see what we got.
This is my honest opinion of: FIRST REFORMED
Revered Toller (Ethan Hawke) became a man of God when his soldier son died in Iraq. Now dedicating his life to helping people and give them hope at the First Reformed Church, he’s called in for his most daunting task yet. A regular church-goer named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks Toller’s help when her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) starts acting unusual and is willing to speak only to Toller about what’s going on with him. Turns out, he’s an environmental activist, believing that the world’s climate will collapse within decades and when he found out that Mary was pregnant, he suggests not having that baby, unable to comprehend bringing a child into a world that’s turning into what he fears. Toller attempts to ease Michael’s troubled mind, but to no avail. In time, he starts to see the patterns for himself and becomes plagued with doubt that God may not forgive people for what they’re doing to this planet.
You know what? I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it. It’s definitely not a bad movie, but… I don’t know, there’s a few things that I didn’t agree with.
I think once you pick up on the true premise that the trailers didn’t really show, the presented story suffers a little. What is that premise? Pollution is killing the planet. That’s… kind of it. But this isn’t news for anyone who browses the internet or, turns on the news, or, you know, goes outside. But this revelation is such a huge surprise to him. Okay, sure, you can make the argument that it’s not the pollution, per se, that drives him over the edge, but rather what will happen globally within his lifetime, and when faced with that question of “will God forgive us” strikes, he feels compelled to do something. But the thing is, the information fed to him was in a single scene. Who believes information from the borderline mentally unstable person after a single conversation? The information fed to him is barely elaborated on, nor is there any information that can disprove it. Hell, there’s not even a desire to confirm Michael’s words. Toller just looks up images and articles that agree with what he’s told, rather than doing further research into the validity of them. I don’t know, it doesn’t seem all that probable that his world views would change so drastically in such a short amount of time and eventually become radicalized himself. Again, someone can make the argument that it was taking its time and that a year does go by. Thing is… does a year go by? Pretty sure it was just a few months. Think about it, from the time Mary drops that she’s pregnant till the end of the story where she’s got a sizable baby bump, that’s definitely not a year, unless she’s got a freak-ass pregnancy that science needs to study right away.
This further confuses me when Toller is shown the suicide bomb vest. Like, that’s a potential act of terrorism right there, am I right? Even if someone agrees with a persons ideas, a bomb vest makes sure that no one is safe, even if that’s not the intention. Point is, Toller decides to keep the vest for himself and for no better reason other than “because.” Something about, “his cause was just, so don’t make the cause look bad,” which shouldn’t be the motivation of a man who hasn’t been radicalized yet. Yes, I know how the vest comes into play later, but this feels really contrived for when it’s introduced. The police should have been informed right away.
Smaller problems include the generalization of its views on the youth. Like, “kids want immediate answers,” and then some heavy-handed “violent video games, zero privacy” on the internet, shit like that. First of all, violent video games do not factor into anything that happens with radicalized individuals. If they did, it’s because they were mentally unstable people and video games are likely one of many triggers. Clearly a statement made by writers unfamiliar with the medium. Second, Michael was a grown-ass man. Not a kid. Kids get political, they get active, they protest, but only a few idiots actually go out their way to make their causes look bad, and likely the many level-headed folks would protest against such violent or destructive actions. Hell, I’m not even sure if his failing health really factored into anything.
Arguably the biggest sin the movie commits is how predictable it gets toward the end. So by this point, Toller is a lost cause. He’s ready to do something huge to make a point to the world. Mary’s decided to move away from her small town to live with family elsewhere, but is told by Toller not to support him at the big gathering at the church with the mayor and governor, or whoever, was showing up. The movie was only going to end one way: either Toller straps on that bomb vest and kills everyone, or Mary would show up and Toller wouldn’t kill anyone. Anyone could have guessed this coming a mile away when he keeps the bomb vest early on, as anyone with half a brain knows it’s going to play a role in future events. And as Toller gets angrier as time goes on, we can also guess what he’ll end up doing with it. Hence, the “suspense” at the end of the movie isn’t very suspenseful. And maybe I’ve just seen one too many movies in my life, but I found myself relatively not concerned about what was unfolding. Oh, and sure enough, Mary shows up and Toller doesn’t kill anybody.
And does Toller’s failing health contribute to anything? I guess someone could tell me it sort of factors into his decision to commit suicide, but I’m pretty sure you could cut that out and his motivations would have still been pretty thin.
What makes the resolution even more baffling is that she sees that bomb on his chest and the credits roll when they start making out. Since when did this romance bloom? For the duration of the story, they’ve just been good friends. Yeah, there was that weird “laying on one another in space” or whatever the hell that uncomfortable shit was, but just because you could slice the tension with a knife doesn’t immediately mean that they were romantically involved. That was never developed, if you ask me. Especially since she saw that bomb, I can’t imagine a bigger turn off. And does she not notice the barbed wire that he wrapped around his body? Pretty sure that he took a layer or two off when she caught him and he started freaking out and took the vest off. These final five or so minutes would have been tolerable if that make out session didn’t happen.
Overall, I don’t agree with the positivity surrounding the film. Personally, I think it’s pretty dull, has a protagonist with confused and thin motivation, among other more serious problems later on. I can’t say it’s awful, as the acting is rather outstanding, and it’s certainly got a chilling atmosphere for the first half, but it doesn’t come together as a complete package at the end of the day. As a recommendation… I would give it a pass. If you must see it, save it for a rental or a streaming service. It’s not the worst watch in the world, but certainly not the most memorable. I will watch this movie for 108 minutes, and at the end of that time, it will be forgotten.
My honest rating for FIRST REFORMED: a weak 3/5