Anyone who has followed the career of Paul Schrader could fall into the trap of simply cataloguing the ways in which First Reformed (2018) is a summation of his themes and inspirations. Imagine the promotional possibilities: “From the author of “Transcendental Cinema” and “Notes on Film Noir” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ.” First Reformed leans on the former but, as so many of his past films, he puts his search for grace in an American context where violence is too often an answer, or at least an impulse.
A gaunt and drawn Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a former Army Chaplain who has found his place as the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, an historical landmark with a dwindling congregation about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. In denial of an unnamed, possibly fatal affliction and spiking his spare meals with splash or two of whiskey, Toller could be an American answer to the idealistic cleric of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (he even keeps a handwritten journal), embracing the simplicity of faith and the purity of a spare existence after the loss of his family. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a loyal congregant, asks Toller to counsel her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ecological activist giving in to despair and desperations. When Mary discovers explosives hidden in their garage, seeds of violent action take root in Toller’s mind as he obsesses over images of our polluted and poisoned planet.
Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) strolls down a city street, the anonymous faces in the crowds streaming past him instantly tagged with pop-up IDs. Frieland’s a cop in a future where every brain is connected to a central server, his hardwired Google Glass eyeballs giving him access not just to individuals’ data but everything they’ve seen and heard, all of it recorded for posterity and occasionally self-incrimination. Then, he’s called to a murder scene and finds the mind of the victim has been hacked––the culprit gone without leaving a digital footprint of any kind. Is this ghost in the machine a serial killer, an assassin, or something else?
Not your grandmother’s fairy tale, this mix of fable and werewolf film tries to get the blood flowing in the new brand of horror-fantasy-romance that the “Twilight” films are so busy draining the life from.
Director Catherine Hardwicke, in fact, directed the first (and the best) of the Twilight films before “creative differences” brought a parting of the ways. So she went a little more feral for this story, which is less shy about churning up sex and lust and feral drives, though it does keep it down to a PG-13 level. And while it seems to have plenty going for it, from a ripe Amanda Seyfried in the lead under the scarlet hood to Gary Oldman as a piously dangerous Inquisition priest who doesn’t mind torturing a few villagers to rid the place of the supernatural wolf preying upon its inhabitants, this gorgeously-mounted production fails to rouse the primitive ferocity of the primal beauty and the beast tale.