From 2017, though not released theatrically until 2018, this morning’s library-rental movie (no cost to me, thankfully).
I recommend you read my summary of the film rather than waste 113 minutes of your time sitting through this angsty, overwrought and pretentious piece of disappointing arthouse nonsense.
After failing to convince a suicidal leftist radical that life’s worth living, cancer-stricken, alcoholic minister Ethan Hawke appropriates the dead radical’s suicide vest, plotting to detonate himself in front of a bunch of wealthy benefactors and VIPs during his church’s reconfirmation ceremony. Because the church’s main benefactor is a wealthy energy tycoon who’s KILLING THE PLANET!
Only Hawke’s fallen in love with the dead radical’s cute wife, played by Amanda Seyfried, who shows up for the reconfirmation ceremony, unwittingly foiling Hawke’s suicide-bomber aspirations.
See, the two of them have been spending a lot of alone time together since her hubby’s death and Hawke has a soft spot for her.
So, his terrorist suicide-bomber dreams dashed, he wraps his bare torso in barbed wire, dons his white robe while alone in his parsonage and decides to substitute his usual booze for Liquid Drano rather than participate in the reconfirmation ceremony.
But then, just as he’s about to take his lethal drink of toilet cleaner, the dead radical’s pretty wife walks in on him. Dropping the glass of poison, Hawke rushes to her and they share a camera-swirling kiss and embrace.
I’m not sure who this movie was made for, but it wasn’t me. As soon as Hawke acquires the suicide vest, along with the dead radical’s despair, spouting off about pollution and global warming, I knew what his plan would be, particularly because the wealthy energy tycoon was depicted as someone worthy of contempt and derision.
Never mind the two or three dozen other ceremony attendees who were also going to get blown up, this one rich blowhard’s death would’ve been worth it, eh?
Maybe the writer-director didn’t intend for the audience to cheer on the minister’s lunatic scheme, but Hawke’s decision to do so was simply something I had little patience for. And I also knew he wouldn’t actually go through with it in the end. I knew the cute widow would walk in and change his mind with just a little bit of eye contact from across the room.
The predictability of this plot conflict preventing me from suspending my disbelief. As a result, I finished watching the movie not because I was invested in the main character, or because the filmmaker had created a firm tone of suspense and dread, but because I wanted to see just how groan-inducing his picture’s highbrow finale would be.
The camera-swirling kiss-and-embrace between the disgraced, suicidal minister and the dead radical’s wife was ridiculous.
What I wanted to see, however, the movie didn’t reveal: The young woman’s reaction when she notices the blood seeping through the minister’s white robe, then discovers the goofy bastard’s wrapped his bare torso in barbed wire. Finding that out, does she kiss him again? Or does she recoil in horror and calmly make for the nearest exit to get away from him?
First Reformed, during its first thirty minutes or so, did a fine job of holding my interest, with compelling characters having unique conversations about subjects one doesn’t find discussed in most of today’s feature films. The philososphical/spiritual topics of Hawke’s conversation with the troubled husband had me optimistic that the rest of the film would take this material in a more ambitious direction.
If the film’s plot had been concerned with Hawke trying to steer the nihilistic young man onto a more optimistic path, to convince him that his wife and unborn child were the most important things to fight for, to protect, to persevere on behalf of…with Hawke’s character all the while resisting his growing desire for the vulnerable, emotionally needy wife…
…that would have been the kind of dramatic conflict I would’ve found compelling.
Having the character of the pessimistic young husband and father-to-be blow his own brains out, then having the minister adopt his radical leftist furvor to the point where this man of God is willing to suicide-bomb a congregation of innocent strangers in his own church during a religious service, that took the story in a lazy, predictable, almost clichéd direction.
On the surface, the film’s very well made, so I guess it’s the story’s direction I had problems with. The main character’s angst seemed very contrived, especially considering the outcome of the narrative, which ends with the tormented man saved by a swirling, passionate kiss from a pretty girl. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or continue groaning in disbelief.
Very disappointing, even for a free library rental.
To my taste, as a writer-director, Paul Schrader’s hit-or-miss, with no in-betweens.
Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, Patty Hearst, Dominion: A Prequel To The Exorcist, and Dog Eat Dog were all terrific, well-written, clever, compelling, often very entertaining films.
The combined track record of these films are what sustains my interest in seeking out anything new the man creates.
In recent years, Schrader’s gone on record dismissing and trashing some of these these earlier films as didactic and simplistic. His brother, Leonard, when asked once why Schrader seemed to have such contempt for Blue Collar, for example, replied “That’s because he didn’t write it” (Leonard shares a co-screenwriting credit with Paul on that film).
Even if Paul Schrader just put his name on some of these earlier scripts to get them made, I still consider them his. I don’t care what Paul Schrader thinks of his own work. His early films, the first two, in particular– Blue Collar and Hardcore— are classics, fine films which I never get tired of revisiting year after year.
But Light Sleeper, Affliction, Auto Focus, The Walker…meh. Great casts, interesting subject matter, aesthetically fine, but, ultimately, dour films that I found terribly unsatisfying.
Critics fawn over these films, but few others have. Schrader’s been chasing critical praise for over thirty years now, but, seemingly in spite of himself, he’s managed to make a few decent films during that time.
Aesthetically subdued, but dramatically overwrought and thematically confused, First Reformed ain’t one of ’em.