Sunday, 22 July 2018

First Reformed: NZIFF Review

First Reformed: NZIFF Review


Taxi Driver director Paul Schrader's return centres around the loss of faith, and the questioning of our place in the world when disillusionment comes knocking.

A rarely better Ethan Hawke plays country priest Reverend Toller, who preaches in the First Reformed church to no more than a handful of parishoners. The church has been largely abandoned in favour of the bigger flashier mega church Abundant Life nearby (headed up by Cedric the Entertainer's pastor).
First Reformed: NZIFF Review

Deciding to carry out an experiment of writing a diary for a year under the self-examination of "When writing about one's self, one should show no mercy", (a form of self-flagellation perhaps?) Toller's world changes when new parishoner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her despondent-at-the-state-of-the-world husband.

But Toller's world begins to spiral down when his own doubts, and ailments boil further up, threatening to erupt in an explosive manner.

First Reformed's carefully choreographed descent is a compelling and, at times, unsettling and frightening watch.

Subtleties and nuances point to where the intensity of the story is going, but the shocks when it heads that way are none the less impactful for it. The crisis of faith can not only be confined to Toller, but to many in the world we currently inhabit - Schrader's universal worries are unsettling and frighteningly common.

Hawke delivers a thoughtful and crafted turn as Toller, a man for whom anger seems the right and righteous path to take - and certainly, the shocking elements work well as Hawke's way of selling the path seem logical and even empathetically understandable. Troubles and torment swirl together in one ugly brew, but Hawke never portrays Toller as a less than human figure grappling for his own soul and peace of mind.

There's also a seething in Schrader's story here - an anger at corporate negligence and buyouts of morals; a betrayal at how life can be abused; there's much to dwell on in Schrader's swelling play as he levels at the unswerving forces of destruction eating away at our planet and our souls. Certainly, there are elements of Taxi Driver that swoop unexpectedly in, similarities too hard to ignore.

First Reformed's descent is all too plausible; its crisis of faith all too familiar and its current world despondency all too engrossing.

What First Reformed does is more than allude to Schrader's past. There are theological discussions to delve into, and a polarising ending that will provoke much debate - this is a film that burns with an intensity, and burns with a longer life after the lights have gone up.

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