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The Best Film of 2017 (So Far) Is…

October 7, 2017

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The best film of 2017 (so far) is… not going to be released until 2018. But I caught a screening of it at the 55th New York Film Festival, and I’m here to testify that First Reformed is a cinematic miracle. “This is the movie I’ve avoided making my entire career,” writer-director Paul Schrader said at a post-screening Q&A. I beg to differ. It’s the movie he’s been trying to make his entire career, and he’s finally perfected it.

As I wrote in a comprehensive review of Schrader’s career for RogerEbert.com in 2012, he often makes films fixated on an “unholy Trinity of blood, boobs and the Bible.” Raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a Dutch Calvinist sect in Michigan, he grew obsessed with the forbidden fruits of sex and violence, and has washed himself in blood and other bodily fluids in his screenplays for Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ as well as his own movies such as Hardcore, American Gigolo and Auto Focus.

All of these films center around a solitary man on a mission — “God’s lonely man,” as Travis Bickle calls himself — who seek redemption through a sexually attractive woman, with varying degrees of success. In the case of First Reformed, Schrader cuts straight to the heart of his story. Ethan Hawke, who’s been on a remarkable roll lately in films like Boyhood, The Phenom and Maudie, delivers a deeply transfixing performance as Toller, the pastor at the First Reformed Calvinist church. It’s an historic institution that has become little more than a tourist-trap offshoot of a megachurch presided over by a corporate-friendly minister played, in an inspired bit of casting, by The Soul Man‘s Cedric the Entertainer, working under his real name, Cedric Kyles.

A former military chaplain wracked with guilt over sending his son off to die in a meaningless war in Iraq, Toller is suffering a spiritual crisis, unable to pray as he rots literally from the inside out and he drinks himself to near-death. Enter the potential savior, a pregnant woman (a career-best Amanda Seyfried) whose environimental-activist husband (Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s Phillip Ettinger) has grown despondent about bringing a child into our rapidly deteriorating world.

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I won’t spoil any of the plot twists, but suffice it to say Schrader puts you inside the mind and soul of a man wrestling with himself to find a single drop of hope amid a profoundly polluted sea of despair. The imagery isn’t difficult to decipher — “there are going to be a lot of term papers written about this movie,” he cracked — but that doesn’t make the film any less powerful. Even as it veers into surrealism, First Reformed remains rooted in a rare emotional verisimilitude.

Schrader uses techniques of cinematic restraint like minimal music and controlled camera moves to draw you into the heart of his story. Decrying blockbusters that bombard you with their “neediness for approval,” as he put it, he has created a masterpiece that challenges viewers to question the main character’s morality and ultimately, their own faith, or lack thereof. When was the last time a movie did that?

 

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