First Reformed is an unsettling movie. I'm not sure it's unsettling in any particularly useful way.
On a technical level, it's distracting from the start. I could not stop noticing the cinematography, by Alexander Dynan, who apparently has a penchant for keeping the camera in a stationery position, often with the visual subject off center. Why do we need to watch the characters simply sit down on the couch through a doorway from the other room?
It doesn't help that the aspect ration is 1.37 : 1 -- upon the opening scene, I thought for a moment the picture was actually square. Instead of the horizontal black bars you see on the top and bottom of your TV screen when you see a movie in letterbox format, this time a vertical black bar is seen on both sides of the screen in the theatre.
Okay, so maybe I'm one of few people likely to pay attention to such things. So let's move on to the story. It has potential, but First Reformed, written and directed by Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader, is convinced it's "Great Cinema." It's okay cinema at best, straining under the weight of ego.
Ethan Hawke, at least, offers an impressively nuanced performance as the troubled pastor of a small church about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The reverend lives a largely solitary life, his marriage having broken down after their son died serving in Iraq. A huge celebration for this anniversary brings the assistance of a nearby church with a huge congregation, headed by a pastor played with understatement and subtlety by Cedric the Entertainer. Much of what the megachurch accomplishes is due to the underwriting of a right-wing douche with a short temper, who owns environment-destroying Balq Industries (Michael Gaston).
Too much of First Reformed is ridiculously on the nose. Even the name "Edward Balq" is a tad obvious. In one scene, in which Reverend Toller sits in on a group therapy session at the megachurch, a young man present goes off on a tangent that ends in a dig at Muslims. In another, Balq accuses Toller of doing "a political act" by scattering ashes at the site of a bunch of garbage and pollution -- at the deceased's request.
First Reformed is not overly concerned with these incidents in general, but when they happen, the instinctive response is to think, Okay, I get it. There's something a bit heavy-handed about the environmental elements of this story. Toller councils a young man who wants his wife to abort their unborn child, because the man is too full of despair to imagine justifying raising a child in this world. This movie doesn't do much to convince us he's wrong. If you want something uplifting, this is not the place to look.
There's an interlude in the middle of the movie that suddenly takes things in a dreamlike direction, a celestial journey -- maybe five minutes far away from the grim groundedness of the rest of the story. A couple of scenes are borderline graphic in their goriness. Reverend Toller has a crisis of faith which, while countless other critics are hailing it as a superb presentation of it, I did not find especially believable. How many people seeing this movie, mostly liberals who are presumably the film's broad target audience, have actually had a genuine crisis of faith?
The ending is abrupt and a little bonkers, another example of high-minded cinema that is ironically unaware of its marked pretensions. Annihilation essentially had this same problem with its final sequence -- ironically, in an evolutionary context as opposed to the religious one here -- but at least it had a hypnotic beauty going for it. In the end, First Reformed cheapens the philosophical breakdown of what it means to question deeply held faith. I'm an aetheist -- albeit one who was once religious -- and not even I have much respect for that.