Blu-ray Review: First Reformed

STUDIO: Lionsgate | DIRECTOR: Paul Schrader | CAST: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfriend, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Victoria Hill
RELEASE DATE: Aug. 21, 2018 | PRICE: DVD $17.91, Blu-ray $17.96
BONUSES: director’s commentary, featurette
SPECS: R | 108 min. | Drama | 1.33:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video  | Overall

Paul Schrader, the writer-director of American Gigolo and Cat People and screenwriter of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, has quietly been making small, intense films for years–most of which didn’t make it to a theater near you.

First Reformed, Schrader’s latest, is the exception to the rule, receiving a healthy theatrical rollout and universal praise, with a 95% Rotten Tomatoes rating.

The film stars Ethan Hawke (Good Kill) as Ernest Toller, a depressed, middle-aged reverend at a struggling, historic New York church. With the church about to celebrate its 250th birthday, Toller’s life is changed when a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried, Love the Coopers) seeks advice from him after her war veteran husband (Philip Ettinger, Brawl in Cell Block 99), an environmental activist, experiences serious emotional issues. Their conversations spark Toller’s own doubts and questions about life and faith leading the tortured holy man to take some radical actions.

Tightly wound and methodically paced, First Reformed is a powerful drama that keeps is emotions in check until the last 20 minutes when all hell breaks loose. This follows the same trajectory experienced by Hawke’s character, a man haunted by his tragic past and unable to come to terms with the faults of his own or the people around him. Problematical, however, are those last 20 minutes, where Schrader keeps Toller’s actions open for interpretation, which may frustrate viewers deeply invested in the relatively straightforward nature of the rest of the film.

First Reformed is definitely not for all tastes, but those willing to take the plunge will find it gripping and disturbing. No surprise there since Schrader is known for his morality-based films like Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper with which First Reformed shares some similarities. The film also boasts what could be Hawke’s best performance, an award-worthy turn that finds him on-screen for almost the entire film and allows the audience to gain sympathy for a character that is constantly struggling within his own skin. Surprisingly effective, too, is Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer, Why Him?) as the pastor of a nearby church that receives funding from a company with a record of polluting the environment. The complications sprung from this plotline are especially timely, coming as the Trump Administration continues to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency even after the reign of former head Scott Pruitt.

First Reformed took in $3.5 million at the box-office during its theatrical run that peaked at 335 screens. Certainly, the critical accolades will help spark attention to this small but significant account of religion, morality and nature, and how they collide in one flawed man’s life.

Buy or Rent First Reformed

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.