Some people just want to watch the world burn… literally. In First Reformed, the world is burning as the minds of the audience melts. It starts as a timid religious drama but ends up as a psychological thriller that will have you wondering what the F you just watched. It will take multiple viewings to even begin to understand what happens in the film, but we’re going to try to break it down without spoilers in our First Reformed review.
As First Reformed begins, we see Ethan Hawke (Father Toller) as a struggling alcoholic priest. He was a family man and former agent of the military until he convinced his son to join the Armed Forces, only to see him die six months later. That death eventually caused his wife to leave, but to help him get his life back in order, Paster Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), allows Toller to look after a small historical church in town. It’s at this point that the film begins.
This is a very serious film that covers a multitude of issues that each could’ve been the sole point of drama in a typical movie. Global warming, corporate greed, suicide bombings, using religion to fuel greed and power, longing for a love you cannot have, delusion, rejection and more. In fact, First Reformed is so serious that Cedric the Entertainer is credited as simply “Cedric Kyles” for the first time in his 20 year film career.
At first glance you may think First Reformed is primarily a religious film, but as the plot starts to unwind more and more pieces are added until the audience is thoroughly lost. You won’t be lost in a bad way, but First Reformed is one of those films that you really have to think about after the fact. After giving it significant thought, you’ll go back and watch it a second and maybe even a third time to truly grasp what writer and director, Paul Schrader, was trying to convey. It’s puzzling, yet a riveting film that shouldn’t surprise anyone since it comes from the same mind that brought you Taxi Driver back in 1976.
First Reformed is a film that would feel right at home during awards season, but that may be too far out there to actually get any nominations. Ethan Hawke carries the film on his shoulders, showing up in almost every scene, advancing the plot with an internal monologue that can be heard while he’s writing in a personal journal, and taking the film down every twisted turn until we reach the very end. He may as well be playing three different people given Father Toller’s elastic character arc.
The longer you watch First Reformed, the less it makes sense. As more and more layers are added to the plot, it will take a lengthy conversation after the film has ended to even begin to understand what happened. In a way, First Reformed plays like a twisted version of The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, where having knowledge of the end makes it easier to understand the rest of the film. It’s a film you need to prepare yourself to watch, and not something you take a fun date to on a Saturday night.
When you’re ready to watch First Reformed, you won’t be sorry, but the material is so heavy you may not be open to a second viewing. Unfortunately, if you don’t watch the film a second time, it may be difficult to truly understand what happened throughout the movie. Either way, be prepared for a mind-bending psychological thriller with heavy religious influence and a dose of scientific, real-world horror.
About First Reformed
Synopsis: A former military chaplain is wracked by grief over the death of his son. Mary is a member of his church whose husband, a radical environmentalist, commits suicide, setting the plot in motion.
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke, Cedric the Entertainer
Runtime: 1 Hour, 48 Minutes
Bryan Dawson has been writing professionally since the age of 13. He started his career as a video game writer and has since worked for Random House, Prima Games, DirecTV, IGN, AOL, the British Government, and various other organizations. For GNN, Bryan taps into his passion for movies.