Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) looks after and manages a historic church known as the First Reformed. There he preaches and serves a small congregation. Toller also conducts regular tours for those who visit as well as general maintenance around the church property, keeping the old building up to scratch. The town’s churches are about to celebrate First Reformed’s 250th Anniversary which will involve other churches and community members. While preparing for this main event, Rev Toller agrees to meet with a man who is struggling with life and the current status of the world that surrounds him.
After a couple of meetings and seeing Toller trying to help this man with his wisdom and Godly guidance, things surrounding Rev Toller’s mind and his thoughts become dark. Reverend Toller also begins to wrestle with himself and the stress he carries daily.
First Reformed does something very well which I haven’t seen much of in 2018, and that is the pacing. This film’s pacing only seems to add more and more tension, building towards the film’s final and last act. The film can be rather dark and tense, both because of Rev Toller and the world surrounding him. As a character, I also enjoyed how Rev Toller daily wrote in a journal, keeping no secret thoughts from the audience. This also leads me to my next positive point.
Ethan Hawke has delivered an outstanding performance, and I love his work here. The actor has even considered some of the minor details which make genuinely make the audience forget who is watching.
Another positive choice to speak about is the director’s creative choice of using a 4:3 aspect ratio (Box screen size instead of the standard 16:9 widescreen ratio) for the film’s entire duration. I also loved enjoyed little details like the traditional way of doing the film’s introduction credits. The aspect ratio and the credits of the opening are just some of the minor features that also make the film feel slightly uncomfortable and makes the audience feel a little trapped. Regardless of your thoughts on these small elements, they do help the film’s dark tone, rather than merely trying to give thrills to the audience.
Overall, while I enjoyed First Reformed’s style, story and performances by Ethan Hawke, the film is an incredibly dark tale which will stay with the audience after viewing and perhaps even leave you questioning elements, including the film’s endings. It’s great to see an excellent, suspenseful and gritty film, using basic film techniques with solid acting instead just making a noisy modern film with a green screen and boo scares. True credit also goes out to the director (Paul Schrader) and his creative work here. I feel this film will have different meanings and overall effect on its audiences (including myself).
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Review Written by Peter Walkden