You Preachin' To Me?
113 Mins. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried & Cedric Kyles. Director: Paul Schrader.
My hands shake as I write these lines. 'First Reformed' may be one of the greatest movies of the generation...let alone this calender. With a hallowed, powerhouse performance read from Ethan Hawke that takes you to the pulpit. Incendiary to the flesh, De Niro's 'Taxi Driver' fare writer (yeah we're talkin' about Paul Schrader) goes all Travis Bickle, old testament with the grace of God who art in heaven. As haunting as the lines wrote below Hawke's eyes, this film is as spiritual as it is lyrical. But there's a light to be shone amongst all this decaying darkness. As this modern classic takes it all the way back to the sacred text of kingdom come, Hollywood greats. Straight from the old fashioned opening credits as silent as the movies that predated all this talk. A dense, polaroid picture 1:37:1 aspect ratio kindred spirit to last years greatest and most underrated movie in 'A Ghost Story', starring Academy Award alumnus Rooney Mara and 'Manchester By The Sea' Best Actor Oscar winner Casey Affleck under a white sheet with holes cut in it. What more could you expect from the new best production company in cinema today A24? One that's Troy McClure brought you such films as, Scarlett Johansson's acclaimed alienation in the Scottish streets of Glasgow, 'Under The Skin'. Leading, leading man and leading, leading lady Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain's anti-gangster in a world of 'Goodfellas' and 'Godfathers', 'A Most Violent Year'. Colin Farrell's animalistic 'Lobster' follow-up on a biblical scale, 'The Killing Of A Sacred Deer'. Willem Dafoe's Oscar overlooked, not even an orange, worthy of a slice, 'The Florida Project'. And one certain envelope read one you might know (unless you're Warren Beatty) as 'Moonlight'. Firstly 'First Reformed' concerns the past of Ethan's pastor character. The veteran actor plays a retired military man who turns to the clergy and priesthood for answers he could never provide as a father who encouraged his son to carry on family tradition an enlist in the Iraq war. One that sent him back a folded flag and divorce papers. Now looking to improve his inspiration impoverished life by providing light and God's guidance to those in the black he encounters a young couple actively involved in protesting the war we wage on the environment daily by any radical means necessary. And that's where everything changes in a film that takes climate change, terrorism, religion, spirituality and our basic humanity to task in this church in the wild.
Hawke is harrowingly good as the white-collared, forlorn father in a small town looking to take blue collar dollars away from the working class. But he's right on the collection plate offering here. What more could an actor of Hawke's visionary calibre afford? Copping his first of two Fuquoa roles alongside Denzel Washington, he survived one hell of a 'Training Day', before becoming part of the gun-totting legendary, new 'Magnificent Seven'. Whilst linking with Linklater he literally aged across the three hours and 12 years screen-time of 'Boyhood'. Not to mention the 'Sunrise' to 'Sunset' love life of the beautiful 'Before' trilogy. And lets not forget his latest greatest, like his Chet Baker, smoky jazz biopic 'Born To Be Blue' in 'Miles Ahead' kind. The futuristic bar stool storytelling of the self aware and very human 'Predestination', past repeating itself circle of life. And the modern, maddening warfare, behind the 'Eye In The Sky' console of a Las Vegas, Nevada to Afghan desert, deserted 'Good Kill'. But this is the most vulnerable Ethan has been since 'Dead Poets Society' with the late, great, Captain my Captain, Robin Williams. Anguish stricken and awash in guilt, grief and whiskey, chased in 'Clockers' pink Pepto-Bismol. Pissing razor blades and recording all his thoughts, whether in prayer or despair (or one and the same) in a jotted journal which will be burnt in effigy before this year of sacrifice is out. His narrating voiceover shows Schrader's script could write a novel out of all this. Barbed wire coiled in tension, Hawke gets his claws into this cassock cloaking darkness. Living alone in the casket like solitary confinements of his one bedroom, one chair in the room apartment as coldly chilling as that box in the loft of his 'Sinister' home movies. You should hold a candle for a man whose only light comes from that waxwork wick John. His voice breaks as he recites the word to his creaking and cracking congregation. And as this man in the mirror takes a long, hard look at himself and his truth to power, you'll see shaved shades of a Bobby's Bickle ready to take matters of the whole world into his own hands. In what is as spiritual a sequel to Scorsese's cabbie as 'Jurassic Park' really is to Spielberg's 'Jaws'. But even as he casts stones, Ethan's very human spirit knows he too is not without sin. For what praise be should be considered his best work and word yet. Please rise.
'First Reformed' is a traditional, humble offering about to coronate 250 years of service. But it's big brother doner upstate, "Abundant Life" is either ironic or right on the nose in this confused, dual desire duelling world of dichotomy. Bible verses larger than life are concrete engraved on parking lot like structures for the mass masses. Ordained to all this is an at his best ever, Cedric Kyles. The classic Def comedian dropping the 'Entertainer' name-tag, but still providing all that. Despite being a serious chapter and verse away from his fun-loving, all-dancing 'Man Of The House' church character. Talk about casting the first stone ("it slipped"). Oil-greased here, his good intentions have a tendency of looking the other way when someone slides a few bills between the pages of the good book he seems to quote more than he reads. It's a good job Hawke has an eye for John 16:33. As this shepherd needs to tend to his lost flock bathed in the blood of the lamb like a scoring pitch perfect choir in chorus here. Take note as he looks upon the youth that he's lost that have the whole world ahead of them and what he says to that in kind. But it's an amazing, standout Amanda Seyfried who is on her scripted best since her play in the cinematic staged, 'Les Miserables' adaptation. Pregnant with new life and old anxieties, Seyfried is an actress who says more with those wide eyes of expression than she does in a days worth of dialogue. This is just how amazing an actress known for her 'Mamma Mia's' and 'Mean Girls' funny side Amanda really is in serious salvation. But next to Hawke's clawing desperation it's Schrader's nerve shredding script and on your radar locating direction that really get to the heart of matters and the soul at stake of this very world we live in. Take a lovingly, levitating 'Tree Of Life' cosmos like, 'Taxi Driver' out of body experience tour through this beautiful but eroding planet with Ethan and Amanda, in a 'La La Land' like interlude that almost plays like 'Aladdin' showing you the world and you will really see what this film is talking about. One offbeat, outstanding moment that takes you to a higher power in a fabled film that communicates Christianity in reference to names and numbers of significance. Outkast Andre 3000 vibrating higher really said it best when he said "mother######! And I do mean mother######. As mother earth is dying and we continue to f### her to death". If you think Hawke's perplexed priest is slowly destroying his temple from within, then look at what we are putting into our own world with this suicide by pollution. With no conscience or hope of consequence on earth as it is in heaven. This is a hard truth we must face before we one day will anyway that makes some of the controversial themes and topics in this all too current affairs film relatable, if not at least debatable right now. And if you tend to agree then forget talkin' to me. You must be preaching to the choir. In hopes to deliver us from the evil we do. Forever and ever. Amen. TIM DAVID HARVEY.
Further Filming: 'Taxi Driver', 'A Ghost Story', 'The Tree Of Life'.