Review: “First Reformed”

By Moriah Story

This May, Director Paul Schrader released “First Reformed,” and it contains some of the most complex, intriguing subject matter and themes seen in any film produced this year. This bleak story is centered on a reverend whose life slowly falls apart from the inside, as he tries to counsel others while covering his shortcomings and his own questions about existence. Be warned, “First Reformed” is not an easy watch. Some scenes are crafted graphically to convey both religious and dark themes.

This movie is unquestionably beautiful in its aesthetics. Schrader crafts each moment of each scene with near perfection. Both the lighting and framing complement the story in a way that is lost in many other films. It is wholly simplistic in nature.

In addition to the stunning visuals, the cast of “First Reformed” execute each role flawlessly. Ethan Hawke’s performance as Reverend Toller causes an emotional response in viewers, and his intense commitment to honestly portraying the struggles of his character is evident.

Amanda Seyfried, best known for her roles in “Mean Girls” and “Mama Mia” proves herself as an actress capable of much more than playing the young, naive girl she has played in the past. Her performance as Mary Mansana is both emotional and powerful. The characters played by Philip Ettinger, Cedric Kyles, and Victoria Hill are brilliantly acted as well.

The complex and grim nature of this film may be a point of contention for many viewers. Themes of suicide, terrorism, alcoholism, abortion, radical environmentalism, hypocrisy in religion, self harm, and terminal illness are all touched upon in “First Reformed.” However, the film’s genuine portrayal of each of these makes it succeed. Viewers cannot look away for a moment as they are caught up in Reverend Toller’s two lives: one in front of his dwindling congregation, and the other within the privacy of his home.

Each scene also drips with religious symbolism and imagery, though viewers may differ on whether the imagery is used appropriately. It would be difficult to paint the central story of “First Reformed” in a positive way: it is about a religious man who slowly loses his mind. This is evident by the end of the film, and, without spoiling the ending, viewers should prepare themselves for a strange, graphic ending that will leave many questions unanswered.

Overall, “First Reformed” is a decent film. It is beautifully crafted, and its haunting themes and images leave audiences to thoughtfully consider the true nature of religion or perhaps life as a whole. I would recommend it to viewers seeking a challenging movie to watch, or to those who enjoy suspenseful buildups and bizarre endings. However, if the sight of blood makes your stomach turn, or themes of mental instability bother you, I would not suggest “First Reformed.”

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