I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a film ending can truly make or break your film. It doesn’t matter how fucking good the movie is before that ending, if your ending sucks, has a WTF kind of punchline, or you are too ambiguous, you could lose your audience. Now let’s go to director Paul Schrader before I get to reviewing his new film starring Ethan Hawke that you probably hadn’t heard of, FIRST REFORMED. Paul Schrader is a pretty great screenwriter, and kind of a meh director. And his screenwriting has definitely been hit or miss. More of a hit in the 70s and 80s and a couple of huge misfires past the 1990s (by misfires I mainly mean The Canyons and The Exorcist prequel). He is known for mainly being a Scorcese collaborator, writing great classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Bringing Out The Dead. Now the ending to Schrader’s new movie is going to divide a lot of people. Critics think it is fucking brilliant, but I’ve heard some audience members aren’t fucking having it, from what I’m reading. I’m going to say that while I think the ending could’ve been much much better than it was (it goes down the predictable route, then then quickly switches gears and goes into “what the fuck territory? with a huge salt load of ambiguousness), it was a bit of a let down, as I feel that Schrader was basically almost copying the ending of Taxi Driver in its “what the fuck”ness. Only Taxi Driver’s ending really really worked. This one, on my initial thoughts, made me say “huh?” when it cut to black. The ending kind of works the more you really think about it and the themes and the weighty moral center the film’s core has. I can’t really get into it without revealing it so if you know me personally, hit me up and I’ll tell you. I’m still recommending the film though, because the dialogue and everything leading to the end is pretty damn brilliant, and so is Ethan Hawke, who gives us his best performance…ever.
Very quickly, the movie is about a protestant pastor who is very ill, very alone (reasons revealed in the movie), and very dedicated to the First Reformed church, a church that is about to have its 250th anniversary. The church has mainly become a tourist attraction, with not a lot of regular daily attendees and worshippers. He’s trying to get ready of being part of the 250th anniversary celebration, collaborating with a much bigger church syndicate run by Cedric The Entertainer (yes, him, but also his best performance…ever, not comical really at all). At the beginning of the film, one day after mass, a pregnant wife, played by Amanda Seyfried (great here too), that wants that pastor to talk to her husband, who is a very depressed, very radical environmentalist, who doesn’t want to bring a child in this world that according to him, is dying. Once meeting with this individual, he begins to questions his beliefs, and his life takes a very different turn. That’s about all I can tell you before I get into the twists and turns of the thing. However, when these twists and turns come, you can eventually see where this movie is going to end, or where you think it will. I have to give it to the ending a little bit for not hitting bullseye on that particular mark, but surely there could’ve been something more concrete and original.
What I did love in this film was the dialogue, the handling of the timely weighty themes, and Ethan Hawke’s Oscar worthy performance. His initial sit down with the environmentalist is long and lasts about 10 minutes, but the way they talk and bounce off of each other in this conversation, just proves that you can keep people’s attention without any action or any new age camera work. The conversation tenses up where it needs to and tells the audience its message without getting too…pun intended…preachy. The whole film I was surprised didn’t really get in your face with the preachy. And it had every opportunity to, and every right to as well. The film is essential a Church versus big corporate pollution companies versus the Pastor’s morals and faith. Every conversation is just nuanced enough to have you guess where the conversation would’ve went if written by a less experienced screenplay writer. But this is Paul Schrader’s we are talking about here, even with his misses, he is still a veteran screenplay writer that we should be able to trust 100%, good or bad movie (can’t say the same for Akiva Goldsman though…)
Ethan Hawke’s performance is nothing short of brilliant, his best since Training Day and Boyhood. He is almost in every scene and he lights up every second of it. There are times where he could’ve completely jumped the gun and over acted, but instead goes the subtle route, to bring a more believable and realistic character to the screen. It’s spectacular to watch and if the ending had completely destroyed my faith in all of the film (it hasn’t, I just thought it could’ve been a little better) I would still recommend the film based on his performance alone. And maybe to even see Cedric The Entertainer (who goes by his real name here) play completely against type. I probably didn’t think the movie is a masterpiece that some critics are claiming it to be because, to be honest, I’m just not that religious. But I do get enough of it to know what the movie was trying to do, basically asking the question, “will God forgive us?” and thinks that it accomplished what it set out to tell, better than average.
It just depends what type of movie goer you are if you will love or hate this film. Paul Shrader early work enthusiasts will love it to death, people that can’t stand religion will probably never watch it or be that interested, religious people will like it until the ending, and modern audience who need explosions and simple tales with absolutely loathe this film. Me? I’m right after the Shrader enthusiasts, I really really thought it was great up until the ending. Now the ending didn’t ruin it for me, it was different enough not to be predictable, I just thought it could’ve been meatier. Say what you want about Hollywood’s lack of originality, but it is film’s like this that get lost in the shuffle that contradict those plights.