There comes a point in time where you have to drive the extra mile to see something great. I didn’t think I’d get a great experience going to Action Point, or Adrift, or Life of the Party, so I went farther out to see an A24 film with Ethan Hawke playing a priest in a very slow-burn, artistic movie.
And dang it all to heck, if this wasn’t the most I’ve hated a movie since… honestly, I don’t remember. First Reformed is a garbage movie. It’s irritatingly one-noted. It’s a movie that fancies itself an ideologue when it offers nothing but grim nihilism. It is astoundingly on-the-nose about its subject material. And the ending is such a big fuck-you to the audience that it makes The Florida Project’s ending feel like Whiplash’s ending by comparison.
Of course, nobody who considers themselves a reviewer really cares if a movie is “preachy” or “on-the-nose” unless it’s a Christian movie or a right-leaning movie. And yeah, I wrote detractive reviews about The Shack and The 15:17 to Paris like pretty much every other reviewer on the face of the planet. However, if the movie is as obvious in its approach on a topic like say, global warming, then more power to that movie, apparently. High grades all around. Drink up, intellectuals.
(This review is way more spoiler-y than I would usually write, so if you want to see this movie, either stop right here and come back after you’ve seen the movie, OR just skip to the final paragraph.)
So where to begin… how about the fact that Ethan Hawke’s character is so freaking unlikable. The only ways that Hawke’s character grows as a person is becoming more reclusive, full-of-himself, narcissistic, and insane. Now, obviously this wouldn’t be a problem in most movies, but First Reformed was dead set on insisting that he’s in the right. This contradiction constantly forced me to think “Why in the world is this movie trying to get me to root for this hateful jerk?”
As for everyone else, Amanda Seyfried is as one-dimensional as they come.
Cedric the Entertainer essentially stands in for the corporate Christian pastor that the movie eventually vilifies.
Neither of these character issues are the actors’s fault. Few people can overcome such a lousy script.
The big kicker that really made me pissed at this movie is that Ethan Hawke’s character is a priest, and so naturally, when a secular company like A24 tries to make a “good Christian” character, it’s basically a secular character who dresses funny and spouts out extra moral platitudes.
And that’s the thing; this movie takes up so much time pointing fingers at “bad Christians”. This is especially true in a specific scene with a round-table youth group. They have the happy Christian whose shallow faith is only supported by the good things happening to him, they have the shallow airhead of a youth pastor who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and then they have the girl going through hard times challenging the idea of “If God was so good, then why is there evil”, to which Ethan Hawke is given the opportunity to dialogue with this girl, only to be cut off by the radical right-wing Christian that is so upset that he has to “make sure he doesn’t hurt the feelings of the Muslims.”
And this movie rightfully shines light on bigotry that some Christians often hide in their chests; but it’s so weird for a movie to poke at all of these bad Christian tropes, and then make the GOOD Christian the guy who’s willing to strap a suicide vest and blow up a church filled with rich men who are meanie-faces to the environment.
And yes, this movie is undoubtedly painting Ethan Hawke as the “correct” person.
The movie is so laughably black-and-white about its subject material that it’s no wonder that there is no subtlety in the dialogue about these valid concerns.
No joke, there’s a scene with a funeral for a radical environmentalist, and in said environmentalist’s last will, he requested that a kids choir sing a song that ultimately says “who’s gonna stop big oil?” over and over again. And while these children are singing this laughable song to a small group of people who start sobbing, I started to wonder if this film was a comedy (it’s not, by the way).
And when the dialogue isn’t being unsubtle, it’s trying to be intellectual in such an empty way that it comes off more as pretentiousness than it does great dialogue.
There’s barely a soundtrack to be had in this movie.
However, most of this was just a bunch of annoyances in a visually interesting movie; what really solidified how much I hated this movie was the ending.
The entire movie was just a bunch of nihilism covered up in pseudo-ideologic mascara, but I was intrigued to see what would happen with Ethan Hawke’s plan to blow up the church of cartoon villains that he hated so much.
Instead, Ethan Hawke changes his mind when Amanda Seyfried’s character walks into the church. He then throws his suicide vest off, wraps barbed wire around his body and butchers his flesh (for some reason), and then puts a white robe on top of the barbed wire. He then pours himself a bottle of pipe cleaner, and before he drinks it, Amanda Seyfried finds him, they rush to meet each other, and they make out while the camera watches them on a swivel.
And then the movie just ends. That’s it.
The movie somehow found a way to be even emptier than Raw.
The ending was like a big, throbbing middle-finger to the audience.
There were three things I thought in that final scene:
1. Why does their making out look so weird?
2. How come his white robe isn’t drenched in more blood considering she’s pressing up against him?
3. Wait, that’s it??? After all that dicking around, THAT is the ending you’re going to go with?
So essentially, First Reformed takes a very important topic, pushes it through the lens of a mentally unstable man, and then tries to convince you that this is the most Christian man of all the hypocrites. And the fact that it goes in circles is largely going to go ignored because the cinematography is a absolutely fantastic, and the acting is good.
But great cinematography on a lousy premise is like painting a turd.
And good acting with a script that lacks substance and lacks character development is like the best singer in the world singing “Friday”.
But anyway, many people DID love this movie. Almost all of these people would consider themselves “cinephiles”. If you’re not a cinephile, you likely won’t enjoy this movie. If you’re a Christian that isn’t a fan of a secular filmmaker interpreting what GOOD Christianity is, then you will probably hate this movie.
A24 is a fantastic source for great indie movies. Everything that I’ve watched of theirs was either a movie that I loved (like Good Time, Green Room, Lady Bird, or It Comes at Night) or a movie that I thought was alright (like Moonlight, The Florida Project, or The Disaster Artist). First Reformed is the first A24 film that I absolutely hate.
3 out of 10