First Reformed

Year: 2017
Production Co: Killer Films
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

Now I've sat through this movie I can't remember what made me fancy watching it. Few movies that show such promise so completely fly off track in the final few minutes to such a frustrating and disappointing degree. What began as a realistic, naturalistic character study seems to chuck it all out the window in the last scene when director Paul Scrader instructs his star Ethan Hawke to go mental (and not in a good way).

He plays Toller, the priest of a small, out-of-the-way parish who presides over a mostly empty congregation and who spends the rest of the week trading on the history of the building and its artefacts to stay afloat while not far away, a modern megachurch that looks and feels more like a conference centre draws all the hip, young crowds.

He's struggling with substance abuse and trauma after losing his soldier son in the Iraq war, and has taken to writing his innermost uncensored thoughts in a journal he intends to destroy after keeping it for a year.

But he might get a new lease on life when a young local woman (Amanda Seyfried) comes to seek his counsel about her radical environmentalist husband, a man who's pulling away from her and whose despair at the state of the world is increasing, especially when she starts talking about having children.

But while the couple gives him a bit of human connection again, he can see the man's point of view about how hopeless and miserable the world is because of climate change and pollution (a position that will put him at odds with an important corporate benefactor to the megachurch they all rely on). Then, when the young husband does the unthinkable, it seems to hammer the final nail in the coffin of any sort of spiritual redemption for him.

On the surface he's working with the local political leadership of both the city and the megachurch to prepare for a big anniversary celebration at his little parish, but underneath he's growing even more despairing as he goes through the dead man's laptop and finds a suicide vest he intended to use as a form of protest.

Then, on the eve of the anniversary celebrations, things take a breakneck and violent left turn and suddenly you're watching a grindhouse exploitation epic with a priest tying barbed wire around his body and putting on a vest full of explosives.

What made it even more jarring was that I believed everything that had happened up until that point. It was a gentle, even meditative movie I expected to build to a natural narrative climax, but it felt like Schrader checked his watch at some point and said 'dammit, there's only three minutes left of screentime, and my signature motif is disaffected men who use acts of brutal violence to deal with their isolation and grief, so I better pull some kind of rabbit out of my hat'. It abruptly disappeared up its own proverbial and then just ended.

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