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First Reformed (2018)

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Throw a handful of popcorn and you'll hit several films about middle-aged men grappling with existential crises. This phenomenon is genre-agnostic. From Tony Stark's superhero-ethics quandaries to Jackson Maine's struggle to keep his life from becoming a country song, I've seen this story a hundred (thousand) times, and in about as many forms. But I've rarely seen it presented with as much brilliant, questioning depth as in Paul Schrader's First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, an upstate New York minister whose congregation is as thin as his self-esteem. Besides grappling with a dead son, a divorce, alcoholism, and nagging pains in both his gut and spirit, Toller must prepare for his church's 250th anniversary re-dedication (which is being overseen by a local mega-church and sponsored by a fossil fuel magnate) and counsel a troubled young couple who are expecting their first child.

Schrader begins with a gimmick: Toller has resolved to keep a journal of unedited thoughts for a full year, the contents of which are available to the audience and God by way of Hawke's detached voice-over. We see the pastor's daily routines, his nightly binges, and his forced composure when dealing with his boss/benefactor (Cedric The Entertainer, framed in a perpetual fish-eye closeup that underscores the weird duality of holy service and corporatism). We also catch glimpses of his former self, as he tries to walk a fanatical environmentalist from the doorstep of violent activism into the more hopeful (but equally problematic) realm of fatherhood.

The narration becomes Schrader's dramatized prayer, offering up Toller's fears and frustrations to a force that may (or may not) give meaning to the seemingly random world it created. Later on, the truth of the film's structure really hits home. We begin with an outline that appears to have been painstakingly written by a master creator. Gradually, Toller loses all sight of his already shaky guiding principles, and becomes obsessed with what amounts to a secular religion. From here, the film's conception of reality breaks apart. Narrative and visual language become polluted, marked by expulsions of pent-up rage, erotic hallucinations, and a climax in which damnation symbolizes rebirth.

That's one interpretation, anyway. First Reformed ends abruptly, leaving us to wonder about the master plan we'd been led to believe existed at the outset. Ultimately, the audience's frustration is Toller's, too: Sadly, if there is a "higher power" at work, its only interest in us may resemble the marginal fascination of gradually applying heat to corn kernels and watching them explode.

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