Wednesday, August 22, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: First Reformed


Although he has directed as many films as he has written, Paul Schrader is more widely known as the screenwriter behind some of Martin Scorcese's greatest films. Most notably, he penned the script for "Taxi Driver", starring an unforgettable Robert De Niro as a disillusioned war veteran. The misanthropy which fueled that character echoes 40 years later in Schrader's latest effort "First Reformed", which sees him doing double duty as writer-director to craft a film that is chillingly relevant to modern society.

While De Niro's Travis Bickle was a taxi driver in the gritty streets of 1970s New York City, the protagonist of "First Reformed" is a priest named Reverend Toller, who is in charge of a historic church further upstate. Played by Ethan Hawke, he is a man tormented by the crises affecting both him and others in the past, present and future. One day, his faith is put the ultimate test upon meeting a couple experiencing difficulties due to the husband's severe depression. As this man slips into crippling despair over mankind's destruction of the earth, Reverend Toller realizes that piety may not provide the answers, causing Toller to question his and the church's purpose in the world.

Bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, Ethan Hawke is well cast in the lead role. While his furrowed brow conveys his internal anguish, his youthful persona serves him well as the character becomes increasingly agitated. Pitched somewhere between grumpy old man and furious activist, it will surely be remembered as one of Hawke's finest hours.

Indeed, Hawke is the anchor of this heavy film which sees Schrader ultimately taking aim at one of the most unspoken, yet critical issues of our time. Namely, what is Christianity's role in environmental protection or lack thereof? Evidently, Schrader takes a cynical view to this answer, starkly showing how capitalism and Christianity are often unholy bedfellows. The influence of both is omnipresent through various perspectives in the narrative, whether it be the aforementioned wife's ingrained religious belief (excellently portrayed by Amanda Seyfried) or the self-serving authority of Cedric the Entertainer as the leader of a megachurch. As the film gradually reinforces the pervading sense of apathy towards the earth, one can't help but empathize with our protagonist's plight.

With an exacting stillness and pallid visual scheme, Schrader's tone is unwaveringly morose. But ultimately, the film leaves a powerful impact that may even strike up Oscar talk for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Whether you're religious or not, it will have you pondering its central concern - Can God Forgive Us?

3 comments:

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