First Reformed Movie Review
Paul Schrader. Ethan Hawke. A24. A story about a tormented priest. It’s a cinephile’s wet dream, which explains the abundance of praise and organ tuning that came from Critics’ Corner. First Reformed features an excellent performance by Hawke and an increasingly unsettling story by Schrader, but between its cheap look and raw storytelling approach, it’s nothing more than an interesting experiment.
It’s easy to see why people of a certain variety gravitated to this movie. Shot in 4:3 format just to make the movie look a little shittier and presented with minimal window dressing, it’s obvious that Schrader had a piece of art on his hands because, you know, artistic films are shot in 4:3 format and stripped of the little details that make a story feel more alive and vibrant. Who could argue with an artist?
First Reformed is very matter of fact, and at times feels like a Mamet show, stilted not in the way the actors deliver their lines or even the lines themselves, but as if Schrader designed each scene just get to a specific sentence or two, disinterested in everything else that is also essential before and after such amazing words are spoken.
There is an appeal to all of this, too, of course—for as much as I rail against certain things, I too am a movie critic, or at least like to pretend that I am—First Reformed feels different, refreshing, like some odd hybrid of a play and a movie that is by no means as minimalistic as Dogville though not fully realized, either. Schrader’s filmmaking approach most benefits Hawke, who lays his emotions out for everyone to see, few distractions amassed (other than a fine-but-whatever supporting turn by Amanda Seyfried and a surprise dramatic role by Cedric the Entertainer, which the film’s marketing calls “powerful” but really is more like, “whoa, Cedric can be serious and isn’t bad at it,” First Reformed often plays like a one-man show).
And while Schrader is never able to fully immerse you in his story, never able to wrap his tentacles around you and pull you in, First Reformed is alluring, its increasingly unsettling score by Brian Williams hinting at more awful things to come. The ending is pretty disturbed and twisted in a way you rarely see dramas end these days—kudos to Schrader—though even then it comes off slightly muted if only because the rest of the movie has held you at arms’ length.
First Reformed has a lot of things going for it, but visceral gets confused with raw, powerful with pointed. Hawke is terrific, the ending is memorable, and I’m glad this movie was made because not enough of these movies are made these days, but Schrader’s filmmaking style handicaps its potential.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.