January sucks. There’s no other way to say it. Aside from Glass, which I’m not going to rush out and see since I haven’t seen Split and the only time I saw Unbreakable was 13 years ago, January looks to be pretty boring at the cinema. In lieu of a lot of new film reviews, I am going to spend the next few weeks occasionally making the case for some films from 2018 that were excellent that I have a bad feeling the Oscars are going to ignore.
I’ve probably said enough the past few months regarding my current lack of enthusiasm for the Oscars, but why not recap it anyway? It’s not so much that the Oscars are trying to include more popular films, it’s that they are compelled to do so purely because of ratings. I think there are a lot of other awards handed out this time of year by critics groups and guilds that are more representative. Maybe some of it has to do with lack of concern over ratings, or maybe it has to do with the difference in taste between critics and the people who actually make movies. I’m also disappointed by the decision to hand out Oscars for technical awards during the commercial breaks. But if one or more of the films I’ll be talking about the next few weeks receive nominations, maybe I’ll be a little more interested in this year’s ceremony.
The first film I want to focus on in this series of underdogs is First Reformed. I said back June that I would eventually write another post about it, and here it is. You probably know by now that I’m non-committal about ranking my favorite films of a given year or picking a favorite, but I can say with complete certainty that First Reformed was the first great film I saw in 2018. For a film to be truly great, I think it has to work on most levels. I say most because some films just aren’t going to have a lot of visual effects, and the auteurs behind others may choose have little or no score in the film. Not every filmmaker will choose to or need to utilize every tool available for every story. That’s fine. I don’t need a rousing score or stunning visual effects in a film for it to be great, but I do need the acting, writing, directing, cinematography and editing to be top notch. In Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, all of the above are superb.
From the opening shot to the last frame, this feels like a film that puts as much thought into character and story as some of the classics from the 30’s and 40’s. Yet this is entirely a contemporary film that combines an exploration of lost faith with dread of the impending calamity that will result from climate change.
The plot is deliberate and slow. The first few scenes introduce us to Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), who begins keeping a journal; an experiment he says will last for one year. After a year, the journal will be destroyed. Though he views the journal as a type of prayer, his certainty that the experiment will end after one year suggests a feeling that no good will come of it. There’s a pointlessness to this experiment that suggests Toller is just killing some time wallowing in hopelessness. If it is indeed a form a prayer, he doesn’t expect anyone to respond or anyone to answer. Maybe he already realizes the answer doesn’t come from above, but either from within himself or others. This is a man who is closer to the truth than he wants to admit. How can a reverend have these feelings and still do his work? Conversely, he seems to dig deeper into his exploration of faith through Roman Catholic and Mystical works. He is not certain of anything but is deeply in search of meaning.
Toller’s finds meaning slowly through interactions with Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband Michael (Michael Mensana). Michael wants Mary to abort their unborn child because of the future he is certain awaits: a world in crisis due to global warming. Toller’s conversation with Michael is quite a long scene. Films have a way of condensing conversations like these so they only take two to three minutes, but this discussion plays out slowly. You feel like you spent an entire afternoon with these two characters as they ponder an imminent apocalypse, which makes the scene so much more heavy. It doesn’t hurt that the characters, like everything and everyone else in the film, are locked in a tight academy ratio, which helps emphasize the sense of doom closing in. For those of you who don’t know, academy ratio was the aspect ratio used by all studio films between 1932 and 1952. Once TV became mainstream in the 1950’s, studios abandoned the “square” shaped academy ratio and adopted various widescreen formats that are still standard in films produced today. The idea was to provide an experience that couldn’t be recreated on television. Of course, now all TVs are capable of displaying widescreen formats, but it worked for a while I guess. A few other films have recently used the academy ratio, including The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Artist, but I don’t think any of them have done so as effectively as Schrader does here.
Perhaps you’ve guessed by now that Toller’s crisis of faith leads him at times to see the world the same way as Michael does. This leads to a thrilling internal conflict. Toller promotes hope, and he still sees hope in people who are willing to act. He becomes passionate about the environment, but is disgusted when other religious leaders scold him for the mildest efforts. He is also an alcoholic; slowly drinking himself to death to deal with the loss of his son. Hopelessness is always threatening to swallow him whole even though his job largely consists of telling people to hang on.
Hawke deserves all the praise he’s received and then some for his performance. Toller’s transformation from depressed reverend to passionate environmentalist to potential eco-terrorist is something that could have become cheesy or over the top. Schrader deserves credit for writing a nuanced, tight-knit script, but even it would not work without the right lead actor. Hawke has never been better, and I once thought it would be hard for him to top his performance in Boyhood. I had to stop myself from cheering in the theater when Toller begins questioning an industrialist’s involvement with Abundant Life, the megachurch that owns First Reformed. By contrast, there were moments when I found Toller’s behavior repulsive, including a scene where he resolves his relationship with Esther, an employee from Abundant Life that he has been sleeping with. Hawke makes every side of Toller’s personality riveting.
Schrader and Hwake make sure we get to know as much as we can about Toller in two hours. Character development is the primary concern and plot developments are secondary, but none of the latter feel rushed. This film uses time well. Editor Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. helps create this pacing with repeated absence of decoupage. Lingering on choir rehearsals and mundane activities only heightens the sense of urgency. There is a climate crisis. The point of no return is approaching. Yet Toller’s concerns always have to take a back seat to rehearsals of “Are You Washed In The Blood of the Lamb?” and plans for First Reformed’s sestercentennial service. As a viewer, it’s hard not to share his frustration over misplaced priorities. Everyone who claims to be Christian seems to have forgotten stewardship and is preoccupied with event planning and fundraising. In this regard, First Reformed tells a timeless story about faith bastardized by greed and corruption.
No one can say yet if First Reformed will become a classic, but I hope it does. It’s a tense psychological and spiritual thriller that features, in my opinion, the single best performance of 2018. Along with Leave No Trace, which I will be writing about next, it also boasts one of the best screenplays in recent memory. Narrowing down an entire year of film to 5 to 10 nominees is a crappy job, and there’s no way a category with so few slots can recognize every great film. But First Reformed deserves consideration from the Academy for its timely arguments about the environment, its honest critique of faith and an unforgettable performance from Ethan Hawke.