Based on the trailer I saw, the little bit I read about it before seeing it, and whatever else I might have picked up about it in advance from people who saw it or were interested in seeing it, First Reformed seemed to be very much a movie I would end up rating highly. But for some reason it just never really connected with me, and if I give it a thumbs up at all it would be a decidedly modest one.
The protagonist of the movie is Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). Information on him and his backstory is doled out slowly as the movie progresses. But eventually we find out [spoiler alert, by the way] a decent amount about him.
He comes from a family with a long military tradition. He served for many years as a military chaplain. During this time he strongly encouraged his son to enlist in the army. The son did so, and was promptly killed in one of America’s dubious wars overseas. This left Toller with devastating guilt, blew up his marriage, caused him to leave his job, and had a more powerful effect on his sanity than is apparent until fairly late in the film.
Toller has recently become the pastor of a small church in upstate New York. The minimal attention the church receives from tourists (it’s centuries old) is greater than the attention it gets from congregants (the regulars at Sundays services can certainly be counted on two hands, and probably one). It only survives, and he only has a job, due to its affiliation with a nearby highly successful mega-church run by a pastor who is at least as much an entrepreneur or politician as man of God and whose powerful personality dominates that of the damaged and diffident Toller, and due to generous financial support of both churches by a shady local business owner and polluter.
Toller’s emotional world is shaken up (or further shaken up) when a local woman prevails upon him to counsel her husband, who she believes is at some risk of becoming an eco-terrorist, and who kills himself not long after being introduced to Toller.
Toller becomes confused/fascinated/obsessed/unhinged as he develops feelings for the wife (romantic?, sexual?, just friends?, remorse for failing to save her husband?), and more alarmingly finds himself drifting toward the same eco-terrorism road the husband was on.
While I was watching it, First Reformed felt like a very professional, very skillfully made movie. You know, solid across the board as far as the writing, the cinematography, the acting, etc.
But then I thought about it, and I started to wonder, then, why was I never fully engaged in this movie, why did my mind wander periodically, why did it never have more than a modest emotional effect on me? Surely there must be something off about the story, the dialogue, the acting, whatever—at least off for me; I’m talking solely about my subjective reaction.
I found it obscure in ways that distracted more than they provided an enriching complexity or interesting openness to multiple interpretations.
Like there’s a minor side plot about some worker at the mega-church that he evidently was involved with sexually during or after his marriage. I assume the implication is that it was after, since she lives locally and he moved here after his marriage broke up, but that’s not specified (only that they “sinned” together at some point), and I suppose it’s possible they knew each other before and one followed the other here. But I don’t see that it adds much of anything to the film. It’s relevant to a later scene, when he’s trying to figure out whom he is or isn’t desirous of killing or willing to kill, but I don’t think that by itself is sufficient reason for this subplot to exist.
Or there’s the whole device of his announcing at the beginning of the film that he’s going to keep a journal of his innermost thoughts for one year, and then burn it. Which sounds rather pointless.
Well, not completely. When I was teaching I used to tell my students that the act of taking detailed notes throughout the class was actually more valuable than later studying from the notes, that if you really kept up on things the whole semester and thought them through well enough to be capable of articulating them in notes, then you’d probably be in pretty good shape even if you somehow lost or deleted the notes before you had a chance to later read them. So maybe it’s something like that, where the act of keeping this journal rather than later reading it, or making it available to anyone else, is what he believes he needs for his emotional well-being.
But how would he know it would have value like that for him for exactly one year, no more, no less? How would he know in advance that he wouldn’t also derive value from having it available to read later?
Whatever the point of it is for him, if any, again it doesn’t feel like it adds much to the movie. Is it just a way of telling us that even before he meets the nutty potential eco-terrorist guy and his wife he already has some foreboding that his life will take some cataclysmic turn in the next year? Is the implication that he has decided to commit suicide in precisely one year?
There is also a scene that’s clearly intended as a fantasy and another that’s probably intended as a fantasy, and as usual with that kind of surrealism I was left more confused or bored than enlightened.
For whatever reason, the movie I find myself most comparing First Reformed to in my mind is Manchester by the Sea, which I liked considerably more. I have the sense that they are both trying to do the same kind of thing (reach you emotionally with the story of a rather taciturn, brooding middle-aged man, whom we learn over the course of the film has been devastated by a family tragedy for which he carries a great burden of guilt).
The difference is that Manchester by the Sea pulls it off remarkably well, and First Reformed doesn’t. Experiencing Manchester by the Sea was quite intense for me. It is very real, very powerful. On the other hand, there’s something about First Reformed that I never bought. Maybe the protagonist wasn’t convincingly crazy enough, or maybe it didn’t seem like the kind of damage he suffered would make him crazy in this specific way, or maybe there was something that wasn’t believable in his developing feelings for the widow, or maybe it was something else.
It seems like First Reformed is objectively probably a good to very good film, but subjectively it just never clicked with me. I never felt much watching this movie, certainly only a small fraction of what I felt watching Manchester by the Sea.