Forty-six year old Reverend Ernst Toller is the pastor at the historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York. It is seen as the "tourist" church or the "souvenir shop" (its historical significance partly it being a stop on the underground railroad before the slaves crossed into Canada) by Abundant Life, which owns the church and which operates a modern self-named five thousand seat church overseen by Reverend Joel Jeffers. First Reformed is celebrating its two hundred fiftieth anniversary this year, for which a major event is planned, modest in size only at First Reformed itself although the dignitaries like the governor and mayor will be at attendance there, while the event will be simulcast at Abundant Life. Most of the speech-making will be done by local industrialist Ed Balq, a major benefactor of Abundant Life and who is the major donor for the necessary upgrades at First Reformed to be able to hold the event there, and for the event itself, while Toller's participation will ...Written by
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Reverend Ernst Toller:
I have decided to keep a journal. Not in a word program or digital file, but in longhand, writing every word out so that every inflection of penmanship, every word chosen, scratched out, revised, is recorded. To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. I will keep this diary for one year; 12 months. And at the end of that time, it will be destroyed. Shredded, then burnt. The...
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I don't want God's forgiveness... I want his help!
'First Reformed' is an extremely challenging film. Maybe the most challenging that I've seen. I expected nothing less from Paul Schrader, though, as he's written and directed a lot of challenging stuff over the years. It's slow, methodical and exacting. It asks important questions but does not give any easy answers (or answers in general for that matter)...
Ethan Hawke's performance at the epicenter of this film really is a towering achievement. It's the kind of performance that will do down as not only one of the best of the year, but this will be remembered (most likely) as his career best. Ernst Toller is a man struggling internally with immense pain and turmoil. The loss of his only child has caused his marriage to fall apart so he has since turned to the Lord for whatever form of relief he can find. Nothing will ever take away that pain, but he's at least been able to somewhat cope with it over the years...though he has never really found true peace or happiness and has since turned to the bottle (like most men seem to) for solace. He writes in a journal every day as a form of self prayer or maybe just a way to put his ruinous thoughts down on paper instead of keeping them bottled up where they could potentially do more harm. A meeting with a local man one day where a multitude of different end-of-the-world topics are discussed ends up leading the Reverend down a rabbit-hole of immense consequences. All of which cause Toller to question his commitment to God and the Church. He's the pastor of a small local church that are all but extinct now and every city is being overrun with these massive churches. Faith has become a spectacle run by mostly phonies who only care about the bottom-line instead of the people and the close-knit community - another thing that frustrates him. Ethan Hawke is able to quietly walk this emotional tightrope the entire film and never allows him to fall into any histrionics. Amanda Seyfried takes on the important role of Mary (one of only 2 main female roles) and she delivers her best performance as well. Mary becomes a integral part of the Reverend's life as they're able to help each other through these difficult times...although it can be kinda hard to see what ways she really helps him. Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles also shows up along the way as the pastor of the big conglomerate church who, despite good intentions, is probably doing more harm than good.
I feel like it really demands to be seen whether you're a person of faith or not. This is definitely not your typical Christian film and that's probably gonna upset a lot of people, but this one (and Schrader) have more lofty ideas and weighty themes on their mind. This is a very dense screenplay which leads to a heavy film that expects a lot from the audience. Paul Schrader isn't letting anyone off the hook easily here...he's being patient and letting the film open up at its own pace. This is also the kind of film that doesn't divulge all of its secrets in one sitting...it expects you to come back to it and soak it all in over multiple viewings - which with a film of this ilk you should probably do anyway.
Paul Schrader and company have created something wholly unique and special with 'First Reformed' and I think it's definitely something to be valued. So if you're in the mood for something a little different and don't mind your movies making you think, then please give it a chance!
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