First Reformed

As I keep saying, I try to avoid movie trailers, reviews, and interviews—at least before seeing the movie—which I'm afraid leads to me missing a lot of movies—but, oh well. I accidentally heard Terry Gross interviewing the lead actor in First Reformed (2017), Ethan Hawke, and its writer and director, Paul Schrader, and before I knew it, I was interested and too informed. A couple of things, however, led me to wanting to see it, and one was something about Schrader's direction of Ethan Hawke, and his willingness to work against that “good guy” quality (which I guess is kind of that “Tom Cruise” quality [that Kubrick wasn't able to beat out of Tom Cruise, but Paul Thomas Anderson found a way to exploit]). Anyway, Ethan Hawke manages, I think, in this movie, to be both a movie star and the monumental face of buried pain. The other thing is that his character, a Protestant minister, keeps a journal, and we hear that in voiceover. That is exciting to me because of my obsession with journal writing, lately, and also, I was thinking about how much I like the use of voiceover in some movies. I once made this kind of ridiculous cinema manifesto (similar to the Dogme 95 [which now seems as dated as Y2K fear]) which included: “No Voiceover.” But it seems like there is less and less voiceover used in movies, generally, and when I think about it, some of my favorite movies ever use heavy voiceover. Instead of it being a lazy thing, a crutch, it can be very powerful if the writing is good.

I once had the idea for a film series comprised of my favorite religious movies, though I think it was actually a list of movies about Catholic priests—though now I can't remember what was on that list besides Buñuel's Nazarín (which I haven't seen in awhile) and Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (which this movie directly references). But before I go any further, I want to highly recommend that anyone reading this review see this movie. I will not use the silly “spoiler alert” warning, because it's ridiculous for me to believe, first, that anyone is reading this, and second, that anyone who has read this far will just stop, see the movie, then resume reading. Also, if you are looking for a woman's point of view, this movie may frustrate you, as one woman in the movie is more of a catalyst (or “muse,” so to speak), and the other more of a mirror (or “punching bag,” so to speak), to the main character, a man. Not unlike Taxi Driver, in a lot of ways, to which there are many similarities. I wouldn't exactly recommend this as a date movie, either, unless your idea of a date is a heated discussion after the movie—in which case it might be the perfect date movie.

But that's all I'm going to say. I do not find any joy in summarizing plot points, anyway, and I'd rather work somewhere brushing scone-crumbs off the wealthy's meeting room chairs than write those kinds of movie reviews for a living (as if). (And that's the way it is.) What I will say, however, is that after seeing this movie I got on a bus, almost mindlessly, and rode it to the end of the line, and then spent a couple of hours walking through empty parking lots, sidewalk-less grassy expanses, and suburban neighborhoods with absolutely no signs of life. The temperature was in the 90s, I guess, so not even the dogs were out. I eventually saw an elderly woman out walking, like I was, and we said hi to each other.

I noticed that on the screen this film looked almost square, so I looked later and read that it's 1.37 : 1, or “Academy ratio,” but sitting close, like I do, it looked almost taller than wide, which immediately gave me the feeling of looking up at an awe-inspiring church, or as a child looking up at a powerful adult. The opening shots, of the old “First Reformed” church, managed to freak me out somehow, and I guess that has to do with, when you focus on nearly anything, even a shrubbery, it looks weird. But what freaked me out more was the modern, “Abundant Life” church (the other church in the movie), which is a stand-in for the new mega churches that have risen in most American communities, from urban to rural, that I'm sure are filled with good people, but aesthetically (and certainly unfairly) give me the cult-alert heebie-jeebies. And then pretty much every exterior in the movie did the same; that bleak, American semi-rural landscape that sells more mood altering substances than movies sell popcorn. Even the temporary relief of an inspiring family restaurant exterior is followed by its bleak, woefully remodeled interior, with all warmth removed. This movie is like a catalog of fear, and so it immediately and continuously reminded me of that force which shapes my life: environmental concerns, uncertain political future, powerful assholes, the body failing, having children, the inability to protect those you love. Of course, isn't all religion about the fear of the unknown?—but not just the fear of death, but men's fear of women's power, due to the accident of our biology? And the difficult one for me to admit, the fear of children; not just the fear of not being able to care for and protect them, but also the fear of my own past.

To some degree this is a horror movie, though hopefully not marketed as one (as with The VVich from a couple of years ago, which wasn't a horror movie, really). I suppose it's being marketed as a “thriller” (but I guess the reality is you have to market a movie somehow, and saying that it's “art” just won't cut it). I did think of Kubrick's The Shining, at one point, just for the odd, hard to describe style that puts you off balance. With Kubrick, you remember the overplayed, iconic moments and think, “what was the big deal?”—but when you go back and watch carefully you realize it's the weird approach to recreating reality that is between the iconic moments that give the movie its power—and that is true with this one. I thought about Lars von Trier (talking about fear), and Polanski, too, and if I was more well-versed in Ozu, Dreyer, etc., I'd probably be able to cite other influences. (There's even an American Job moment, for fans of deep cuts.) When you look at Paul Schrader's credits, even if you're fairly familiar with them, it's often shocking, the varying, mostly excellent, often overlooked, and always pretty out there stuff he's been writer and/or director of (very briefly: Blue Collar, Light of Day, Mosquito Coast). I think history will remember him much more favorably than many of his contemporaries on the always shifting reverence to criticism scale. To the extent that I was freaked out after this movie, even traumatized, to some degree—after a few hours on the bus, walking, and writing in my journal, I felt a particular kind of euphoria—the only thing that ultimately keeps me going—and that's the fragile, fleeting, but powerful feeling of hope brought on by art.

Randy Russell 6.18.18