Thursday, January 24, 2019

My Thoughts on the Oscar-Nominated Films, Part 1: First Reformed

This may or may not be a "continuing series," but let's assume it will be. I plan to watch as many of the films nominated for Academy Awards as I can get through before the awards are actually conferred, and blog my impressions of those films (hopefully avoiding major spoilers, and with warnings if I can't). First up, First Reformed, nominated for Best Original Screenplay:

I really looked forward to this movie. I like Ethan Hawke. A lot. The premise, made pretty clear in the trailer, was promising: A troubled pastor, going through his own crisis of faith, encounters a potential suicide bomber.

I hated almost every minute of actually watching the film. It's just a big ol' downer, full of heart-rending events (its mood reminded me of The Road) and with an outrageously unsatisfying ending (think The Sopranos).

But hating watching a movie is not the same thing as hating a movie.

I'm going to watch this one again (FYI, it streams "free" for Amazon Prime members).


For one thing, it incorporates some of the best elements of the "horror" and "suspense/thriller" genres, packaged into "serious film" format and pulled off perfectly. I was horrified. I was thrilled and held in suspense. That's not necessarily enjoyable, but it's worthwhile.

For another, the acting is just top-notch. Not just Hawke as troubled pastor Ernst Toller, but Amanda Seyfried as the congregation member who asks for his help with a serious problem, Cedric "The Entertainer" Kyles as head pastor of the "mega-church" that bought First Reformed out of near-destruction (with the help of a big businessman played by Michael Gaston) and gave it to Hawke to run because he was in a bad place, and Victoria Hill as Esther, choir director at the mega-church (and, we fairly quickly figure out, someone with whom Toller had an extra-marital relationship of some kind). Philip Ettinger, who plays the potential suicide bomber, did a good job too, but something about him just unsettlingly reminded me of Zach Galifianakis. Nothing against him, but I don't know that I'd have made that casting decision.

And, finally, it deals with some big questions and does so in a thoughtful rather than cut-and-dried way. It made me think, and it sent me off to Google several times to check out various theological/philosophical subjects (but not in the middle of the film; while I had to take a break in the middle, it wasn't because the thing wasn't gripping).

I think there's a trap for the climate-change-fascinated "serious film" community, relating to "cut-and-dried" perceptions, built into First Reformed 

The potential suicide bomber is not an Islamist. He's an environmentalist.

Hawke's character, Reverend Toller, becomes obsessed with the same cause that obsesses the would-be suicide bomber ... and the film seemingly turns into an argument in favor of accepting (and doing something, maybe even something "extreme," about) anthropogenic global warming.

I suspect some of the people who nominated the film did so because they think it makes a strong argument for that cause.

Not only do I not think it does (one reason I don't mention Michael Gaston as one of the acting attractions is that he seems to have been handed a paper-thin, perfunctory character to play as the polluting industrialist, Edward Balq), I don't think that that's what the movie is about, even a little bit.

What First Reformed is about, among other things but IMO most pointedly, is the question "what causes someone to become so obsessed with something that he'd detonate a suicide vest in a crowd of people?" And it makes clear that it's something other than the obvious something that causes such obsession.

I can't honestly tell you that you'll like First Reformed. But I can tell you that there's more to it than initially meets the eye and that if the subjects it deals with fascinate you, it will be a rewarding watch.

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