First Reformed is a master-class in character study. It takes it’s time and doesn’t try to force the story too far. It moves at a fairly slow pace but in doing so gives the central figure, played by Ethan Hawke, time to deliver one of the best performances of his career.
Hawke plays a minister who councils a young married couple, only to discover that the husband is a potential eco-terrorist. When Hawke begins to delve into the beliefs this young man has, he begins to question his own faith. There is little more to the story than that but that is all that is needed when the central performance is so effective. Hawke plays the troubled minister with a quiet, low-key crisis of faith. There are small moments when the cracks in his beliefs begin to show and it is because this doesn’t have a huge, overly-dramatic scene to focus the events around that the film is so realistic but also fairly slow.
First Reformed is a movie of quiet, concerned conversations. The local community is preparing for a celebration of a milestone anniversary for the church Hawke’s minister runs so people are clearly looking past the events which are causing Hawke so much concern. His actions are slight but desperate, from paying slightly too much attention to the wife of the eco-terrorist, played solidly by Amanda Seyfried, to letting his calm demeanour slip when rebuffing the attentions of a close friend in Victoria Hill.
The film is played so low-key that when shocking events do occur, they hit so much harder. There are moments of violence or violent imagery which support the story and the crisis the minister is undergoing. It also helps keep your interest just about on-track, as the movie slumps it injects the proceedings with something to shock you back into interest. First Reformed is dark though and there is seemingly little hope for the small community and the minister at the centre of the movie, which can make this a tough watch.
It doesn’t help that the ending feels annoyingly ambiguous. The plot is clearly going one way and looks to reach a finale which makes sense and satisfies the rest of the film. Unfortunately this is under-cut by the final scene which doesn’t seem to wholly fit with the rest of the film and leaves you slightly irritated that the movie doesn’t get the fitting conclusion it deserves.
Overall, First Reformed is a vehicle for the talents of Ethan Hawke. The actor is reliable in most roles but here he shows one of his best performances yet. The story is bleak and slow but has moments of shock which maintain your interest. A good movie if you can look past the ambiguous ending.
Rating – 3
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