It’s finally here, the very best film of the year.
2018 has seen some pretty spectacular cinematic offerings, and so far this list has highlighted such great films as Paul Dano’s Wildlife, Ben Wheatley’s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, Felix van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy, Matthew Holness’ Possum, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes for Us, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters, Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, and of course, Panos Cosmatos’ incredible second film Mandy. The latter stood at the top spot for some time, but after four viewings of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, it’s clear that it’s not just the best film of 2018, but one of the best films of the decade.
Ethan Hawke turns in one of his most tremendous performances to date as Reverend Toller, who resides at the First Reformed church in upstate New York; referred to as the souvenir shop by members of the Abundant Life church organisation which has eclipsed First Reformed. He decides to keep a diary for twelve months, with the entries providing the narrative a haunting voice-over. The entries are fascinating, contradictory, insightful and deeply troubling. One morning he is asked to counsel the husband of a pregnant woman called Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who - as an environmental activist - has voiced concerns over bringing a child into this cruel world. After the two converse, Toller finds himself influences by the man’s passionate beliefs. A seed is planted, and he is urged to further question his beliefs, faith, and the sad truth behind the 250th anniversary event of First Reformed, handled by Abundant Life and Balq Industries.
Director Paul Kehr attends MoMA's Contenders Screening of 'First Reformed' at MoMA Titus One on November 29, 2018 in New York City.
Paul Schrader most famously wrote the script for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, of which this film certainly shares resemblance. First Reformed is a sublime character study of a man compelled to question his life and the life of all things. The film comments on religion, the environment, extremism, compassion, loneliness, grief, and does so in such a way that feels indisputably important to the current state of the world. Schrader asks so many burgeoning questions here, and presents us with a vision of hope and despair locking lips.
It’s a rare film in that not one single moment feels wasted; everything in this has meaning. The camerawork, cinematography, script, performances, use of music, symbolism - it all comes together brilliantly, and this is a piece of work that has been crafted with such thought and intelligence. It demands to be treated with the same respect. Many will draw upon their own personal analysis when discussing the film, but Schrader manages to make a statement without resorting to ambiguous contemplation. This is not one of those cases in which the depth of the work relies on mystery; the filmmaker at the helm has a clear voice and communicates the inner-workings of Reverend Toller impeccably.
To call the film cynical would possibly be disrespectful. It is - of course - a depressing and distressing film, but the world it depicts is unquestionably our very own, and this is deeply upsetting. Schrader has never been afraid to portray humanity at its ugliest, but here he depicts a wealth of good that is dictated and left defenceless in the epiphanic reality of organised religion and corporate-orchestrated corrosion. First Reformed is a masterpiece, and it demands to be seen.
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