Every now and then, you come across a movie that you have no idea where to put. This movie should have spoken to me. It has all the right bits to do so. Yet I am unmoved by it. Which is a pity, because by all accounts, this movie is one of the front runners for the Oscars this year. At least for now. The guy behind it, Paul Schrader, has been around long enough to leave his marks on movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and with that kind of a resume it is only natural to have high expectations from the film in question. Now, to be fair, I am not saying that the movie falls short on those expectations, rather just, for me, the sum of its parts is lesser than the parts themselves.
Ethan Hawke play a priest named Toller. He is posted in a small church named First Reformed, that is sought out more as a tourist attraction than for spiritual counseling. Toller is leading an austere lifestyle, which is more or less self-imposed as a way to fight his own demons. Because Toller is tormented. He lost his son after he encouraged him to enlist in the armed forces, same way he and his father before him did. He is questioning his own faith in the church seeing how everybody else around him are more focused on the “earthly” part of life instead of spirituality, how the people of the church are more interested of the upcoming anniversary of his church (it has been around for 250) but they don’t really care that week after week it is mostly empty, instead it is more important who introduces who in front of an audience. They don’t care that the people attending the big 5000+ seat churches aren’t truly faithful. Toller is also resenting his own shortcomings and helplessness or self-pity, as he puts it. It all changes though when a member of his congregation, a pregnant young wife, reaches out to him for help. Her husband is having a difficult time adjusting to the world as well, and as being a dedicated environmental activist, he is obsessed with end of the world scenarios and is questioning the wisdom of bringing in a child in a world destined to be doomed. Initially, it seems, that the husband reacts well to Toller’s council, but in short time, he commits suicide. As a result, Toller changes his perspectives regarding his own faith and circumstance.
From a technical point of view, this is a beautiful movie. The images reflect the overall mood of the movie very well. The colors are somewhat de-saturated, just enough to kill any shine of the objects or of the people, for that matter, that are appearing in them. The images are crystal clear but not lively. And because of this everything and everybody looks, in lack of a better word, worn. The shots are composed in a similar manner. They are narrow, and their focus point is always dead center. There will be nothing noteworthy on the sides. Truth be told, there will not be much in the background unless it has to be there, reflecting once again the overall austerity of Toller’s world. The director of photography really outdid himself. But this movie has one more ace up in the sleeve, a very effective use of narration. Now, narration is usually used for exposition purposes, and generally it is considered to be a lazier technic. However, here it is cleverly disguised as actual storytelling, since in the movie Toller is writing diary entries about his everyday life. This allows the film makers to interlace the 1st person accounts of the events, in the form of the narration, with the 3rd person perspective of the viewer, providing us with both the objective facts of the situations as well as the main characters take of them.
In terms of performance, Ethan Hawke kills it. He gives a low-key, distant interpretation to the main character. By the nature of the story, there is a wall between Toller and the rest of the world, but Hawke’s acting makes this wall tangible. You can really feel that Toller does not want to be in his life. If the Oscars would be held today, Hawke would be frontrunner for Best Actor. Amanda Seyfried is also effective as the pregnant wife with the troubled husband. She manages to deliver a character that is innocent but at the same time, is not naïve. Her character is a church goer not because she was raised that way (which she was), but because she finds genuine comfort in keeping faith. Despite all the difficulties she must face, she remains a good person. Fun fact, Amanda Seyfried was actually pregnant during the production. As for the other cast, they too deliver solid performances.
As far as directing goes, Paul Schrader, manages to keep an even pace thorough the film and bringing out the best of what his cast had to offer for this particular project. But, since he is also the one who wrote the script, he is the main reason why this movie falls short, at least for me. As far as I can appraise, there are 2 major issues with the script. First, in the third act, our protagonist reaches a tipping point both out of desperation and because the realizations he made during the interaction with the suicidal husband. Unfortunately, this leads him on a path of action that contradicts everything about the character. It is contrary every value that the character has been established to have or is expected to have given his backstory. I acknowledge, it is very dramatic what Toller decides to do. Should it happen in the real life it would put the world on pause. But here, the shift in the character is just too sudden. The entire film is a build up for Toller’s desperation and contempt but it is insufficient to justify his final actions, given how radical they are. At least another 10 minutes would have been needed to cover that gap, but given that the movie is almost 2 hours long already, I can see why they could not extend the run-time, although, it would have been better to cut something else. However, I cannot fault Schrader for the direction he is taking with the story, because it is very dramatic and the way he chooses to solve it is very cathartic and filled with hope, even if by the ending I literally mean the final 5 seconds of the movie. Also, in this final, very dramatic sequence, a barb wire is involved at some point, which is so out of left field that it literally made me say “wtf” when I saw it. I understand the visual reference that the director was trying to reach, and yes, the imagery was even more dramatic than before, but there was no reason/purpose/logic from a story perspective why that moment should happen. None. I know that I am a bit cryptic here, but if you see the movie, you will get it right away. The second issue I have with this movie/script is the more important one, and namely, I do not care about Toller. I don’t care about him at all. I can appreciate on an objective level the torment that he is going through, sure. But, by design, he is an unlikeable character. And no reasons were provided for us to care about him. Which makes this movie very difficult to sit through. Not because the subject is dark and depressing, which it is, but because its 2 hours about a guy, that I don’t care about, having an existential crisis. Sure, everything else is excellent, but it is still an uncomfortable subject concerning an unlikeable person. This makes the movie to feel long and extremely boring. Thankfully, it avoids the trap of becoming pretentious.
In the end, I do not regret seeing this movie, but watching it did felt more of a chore than a hobby. I am certain that there ae and will be plenty of people for which this film is a masterpiece. If you are one of them, more power to you, that is great, I am happy for you, I really am. For me, this movie is like a fine dish that lacks the seasoning, nutritious but not enjoyable.