First Reformed - Movie Review by Ben Cahlamer

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First Reformed


Directed by Paul Schrader

Written by Paul Schrader

Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Phillip Ettinger


Though I am not fully versed in his catalog, and it has been many years since I’ve seen “Taxi Driver,” writer – director Paul Schrader has never really shied away from bold, life – altering themes and characters who go through morally questionable decisions in times of personal crisis.

“First Reformed” is no exception and as Toller, Ethan Hawke is exceptional.

A man of faith, in a small community where the congregation is but a few of the citizens, a conflicted . . . no, torn Toller is pressed to question his own faith as he struggles with not only the demons of others, but his own struggles. One could point out the connection to another Schrader character, Travis Bickle.

The difference between Toller and Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro, “Taxi Driver”; 1976, d. M. Scorcese) is that Bickle is a veteran who is trying to reintegrate into society following a traumatic, emotional act that he witnessed directly. Toller, on the other hand is coping with the loss of another and thusly takes on the suffering of others.

It is in this vein that Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger) enter his life. They are a young couple who seek Toller’s counsel. In an early sequence, as Michael loosely confesses his sins, we never get to understand who Michael is. Nor should we, for it is Toller’s to take on that burden which is not necessarily ours to bear. Key to this interaction though is the fact that Michael is not seeking absolution. Toller could not offer it as such.

Within this interaction, it strengthens the trust between Toller, who as a disgruntled man of faith and Mary, a woman seeking comfort, but not salvation. Toller will not allow physical contact nor will he allow himself to seek the counsel of others. Especially his senior pastor, Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), who has concerned himself with the business of the 200th anniversary of their small, historical church.

I found it rather interesting that within Toller’s monologue he maintains a journal, specifically stating that he would do so for a year and after that year, he would destroy it. It serves as a foundation for his descent into his crises of faith while struggling to maintain his façade. The allegory on modern society’s commentary is not lost within this context and is a powerful message.

Amidst the chaotic world we live in, Toller never loses focus of his own resolve. Schrader has seen to that. Within his resolution is a confession stuck in catharsis. It is such a beautifully crafted catharsis that we can all endure Toller’s pains. He need not seek absolution from us either, for we are reformed.

4 out of 4 stars