‘First Reformed’ Could Very Well Be Paul Schrader’s Filmmaking Masterpiece

First Reformed movie poster

I remember taking a film class on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and the instructor talked about how filmmakers often make the same movie over and over again. This is certainly the case with Paul Schrader as “First Reformed” marks his return to the “God’s lonely man” story or, as he would describe it, the “man in a room” stories. Whether it is Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Julian Kaye in “American Gigolo,” John LeTour in “Light Sleeper,” Wade Whitehouse in “Affliction” or Carter Page III in “The Walker,” Schrader has always been attracted to the lives of men trapped in their own bubble of solitude as they desperately try to find some meaning in life which will rescue them from the crippling isolation and despair which threatens to envelop them.

With “First Reformed,” you could say Schrader is offering his audience variations on a theme here as not everything is as predictable like us movie buffs might expect. But more importantly, he gives us one of the very best movies he has made in years as his exploration of a man in spiritual crisis remain as powerful as ever, and it features excellent performances from its very talented cast as well as a deeply thoughtful screenplay which succeeds in taking us to hell and back. While Schrader has not always had the technical brilliance which Martin Scorsese continues to possess, “First Reformed” shows us the cinematic leaps and bound he has made over the years, and he does it with a story which highlights the eternal conflict between our belief in God and the inescapable realities we can no longer lie to ourselves about.

Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a former military chaplain who works as a priest and provides sermons to a small congregation at the First Reformed Church in upstate New York. We learn he had a son whom he encouraged to enlist in the military, and that he was killed six months after arriving in Iraq. The tragedy of his son’s death destroyed his marriage, and he bemoans how he sent his only child into a war which had no moral justification. With his role at First Reformed Church, he looks to redeem himself in the eyes of not just everyone around him, but in God’s as well.

One of Toller’s regular attendees is Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who is expecting a baby with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary is eager to welcome this baby into the world, but Michael, however, does not share her enthusiasm and thinks it would be better to terminate the pregnancy. Mary asks Toller to counsel Michael to see if he can relieve her husband of his ongoing depression, and it is during their talks that Toller discovers Michael is a radical environmentalist who has long since been convinced of how global warming is destroying the earth, and that time has already past for humanity to effectively reverse the damage. Things become even more tense when Mary invites Toller over to her house to show him something Michael had hidden from her, a suicide vest.

Revealing more of the story from here would be criminal as it would spoil an already immersive cinematic experience which holds you in its grasp from the get go. What you should know more than anything else is this: global warming is real and is an even bigger threat to this planet than ever before. None of this is lost on Toller as he finds himself sympathizing with Michael to where he doesn’t realize how Michael’s despair is infecting him to an increasing degree. As much as he wants to help Michael, Toller finds himself questioning if God can ever forgive humans for what they have done to the planet. As “First Reformed” shows, this will either not be the case, or that forgiveness may come in another and unexpected form.

The brilliant conceit of “First Reformed” is how it deals with the crisis of faith in regards to an environmental issue which continues to get worse and worse with each passing year. Even Toller has to admit how Michael’s fears are becoming a quicker reality than many would want, or even care, to admit, and this leaves him in a state of conflict which pulls him into a dark place which offers no easy exit. Toller feels compelled to do something about this continuing environmental disaster, but he finds himself caught up in a personal struggle which has him drinking an endless amount of alcohol to drown his troubles away. Many see the suffering of an alcoholic as being someone who is too afraid to live and too scared to die, and Toller clearly fits this description as he cannot lie to himself about the apocalyptic path humanity is on.

When it comes to Schrader, his work as a writer typically outshines what he pulls off as a filmmaker. While his sometimes collaborator Martin Scorsese continues to show a filmmaking mastery few others can come close to equaling, Schrader has to make do with whatever is available to him, and this sometimes shows in embarrassing ways (for example, check out the terrible special effects in “Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist”). His films have long since been relegated to the independent film realm which thrived in the 1990’s but came to suffer inescapable blows to where you were more likely to see his films on your iPhone instead of the silver screen.

With “First Reformed,” however, Schrader gives us one of his best films ever as everything about it feels perfect. The acting is superb, the cinematography by Alexander Dynan is both beautiful and appropriately haunting, and the music of Lustmord helps to accentuate the conflict between hope and despair shown here. Considering how this film was shot in just 20 days on a budget of $3.5 million dollars, this makes what he accomplished here all the more commendable.

Ethan Hawke has long since proven to be one of the best actors of his generation, and his performance as Toller ranks among his finest. Seeing Hawke trying to hold his sanity together as his faith continually gives way to despair is fascinating to watch as his actions come to speak much louder than words can. Amanda Seyfried beautifully underplays her role as an expectant mother who is trying to come to grips with an increasingly dangerous world she wants to welcome her baby into, and she is such a luminous presence here. Even Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, shows up here as Reverend Joel Jeffers, a man who has to balance out his duty to God with the pressing issues from corporate entities that do not want anything to get in the way of profit. Church is a way of life for many people, but make no mistake, it is also a business for others.

“First Reformed” is far and away one of the best films I have seen in 2018, and it may very well be Paul Schrader’s filmmaking masterpiece. It ends on a rather ambiguous note as not everything is wrapped up in a neat and tidy fashion, but with a film like this we are left with more questions than answers and for a very good reason. Schrader seeks to test the faith and beliefs of his audience in an effort to wake them up about climate change and global warming as we have long since become complacent with our elected officials doing little to nothing about reduce the damage it has wrought.

I also have to say that if Hawke had performed a certain action in the film’s last few minutes, I would have been waiting for him to say “corn nuts.” If you have ever seen the cult classic “Heathers” starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, you will know what I mean.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

 

Exclusive Interview with Sophie Curtis about ‘Innocence’

Innocence movie poster

She has played supporting roles in “The English Teacher,” “At Any Price” and “Arbitrage,” but now Sophie Curtis finally gets her first leading role in the horror film “Innocence.” Based on the book of the same name by Jane Mendelsohn, Curtis plays Beckett Warner, a young woman who has just moved with her father to New York City after the tragic death of her mother. Once there she is enrolled in a super elite Manhattan prep school where she makes the acquaintance of the school’s nurse Pamela Hamilton (Kelly Reilly) who helps her settle in to her new environment. But as Pamela begins to insinuate herself into Beckett’s life even more, Beckett comes to discover that the school harbors a deep, dark secret that may end up claiming her life.

It was a lot of fun talking with Curtis back in 2014 on the phone as she was about to start college at UC Berkeley. We talked about how she got cast in “Innocence,” how the movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was a big inspiration for her in playing Beckett, and of what it was like working with established actors like Kelly Reilly and Linus Roache.

 

Ben Kenber: Congratulations on this being your first lead role in a movie.

Sophie Curtis: Thank you. I’m very excited.

BK: You’re welcome. This is one of the few horror movies I’ve seen recently where a teenager having sex can actually save their life instead of end it because it’s usually the other way around (Sophie laughs). How do you feel about that?

SC: I felt like it was empowering. I think it’s good for kids to see both sides, and I really enjoyed playing a character who wants to overcome all the things that are thrown at her. My experience and my courage for it to be my first film, because I was very nervous about that while I was filming, I think that kind of adds to the veneer throughout the film and I hope people pick up on that one while they’re watching it.

BK: How did you get cast in “Innocence?”

SC: I went through the normal audition process, and then Hilary Brougher, the director, had it down to me and I think two other girls, and she met with all of us separately through lunch. We weren’t really auditioned or reading lines. We were just talking about our perspective of who Beckett is and what she’s struggling with and what that means to us. I think we really connected on our views of Beckett and I think we had an understanding. Hillary is awesome. She actually wrote my college recommendation for me so we were very close on set, and I think that we had an immediate connection and that probably helped with me in getting the role for Beckett. She helped me a lot in getting this character.

BK: Kelly Reilly plays a very enigmatic character, and I loved watching how she was able to say things without speaking a word. You look into her eyes and you know she is trouble. What was it like rehearsing with her? Did she surprise you when it came to certain scenes in the movie?

SC: Yes. It’s really funny because she’s actually super, super sweet when she’s not playing a bloodsucking witch and she gives a very raw performance. I think that really helped me with my character because her and Linus Roache who played my dad are very established actors and it was my first leading role, and I think they knew that everybody has to start somewhere so they were very accepting of that and just helped me to do the best that I could do with my performance.

BK: How long of a schedule did you all have to make “Innocence” in?

SC: I think it took us a month and a half, and we were filming really, really long days. Going in at four or five a.m. and finishing once it was dark out was really intense for me, but it was one of the best summers of my life so I’m absolutely grateful for that.

BK: You said “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was a big inspiration for you in playing Beckett. What was it specifically about that movie that inspired you so deeply?

SC: I think it’s just the idea of going back to the source of horror. I think that “Dracula” and films like “Frankenstein” are films that have been drawn from so much to create today’s horror films and today’s horror novels. It’s kind of like the grandfather of horror and I think it’s the idea of supernatural love story with a normal girl, Winona Ryder who is one of my favorite actresses, just being trapped in a hyper reality and being misunderstood. I liked the simplicity of it and I like seeing how it’s transformed throughout in trying to create new movies like “Innocence.” That was the inspiration for Beckett.

BK: Are there any movies out right now that you feel are as good as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula?”

SC: Honestly, I really like old horror movies. To me, “Innocence” is not as much of a horror movie. It’s just more of a thriller and a coming-of-age story.

BK: What’s great about Beckett is that she is one of the more down to earth teenagers that we’ve seen in movies recently. Did you add a lot to this character that wasn’t in the script, or did you mostly stick to the script?

SC: She is really down to earth and I think she just has a very innocent demeanor. Hilary had adapted the script from the book as written by Jane Mendelsohn, and Jane was a producer on the film so she was very involved with how she wanted her story to be portrayed in the movie. I think Hilary kind of changed it from the book and she really involved me in that she starts off solemn and at other time she’s very happy. I kind of gave her my opinions on the script and how I felt Beckett should be represented after reading it and studying the character and just having an insight of being a teenager and how I felt Beckett should come off. So I think I did help or least I hoped I helped. I think I tried to make Beckett as much as my own character because she’s just a really awesome character and I had a really fun time playing her. She definitely taught me a lot while I was filming.

BK: Your character goes through a wide range of emotions throughout this movie. What was it like juggling all those different emotions while playing this role?

SC: It was really intense, but I think that me being nervous and excited and scared and happy and all of those things in real life as Sophie for being my first film and just being in this really intense working environment that I wasn’t used to. I think that really added to Beckett’s character and it helped me. I was going through similar emotions to what she was going through just in different circumstances, so you just try to draw from that and apply it to her situation.

BK: I understand that you are now starting college at UC Berkeley. How is that going for you?

SC: I’m here right now in my dorm, so if you hear other people it’s just my roommates. I’m in a triple so it’s really very crowded.

BK: What do you have planned next other than school?

SC: I’m just seeing what happens with “Innocence” right now. It’s just a really exciting time so I’m just reviewing a few possibilities, and there’s some really great opportunities. I just have to figure out which ones are the right ones for me. You have to be really, really dedicated to the project you take on because it’s really long hours and you have to really invest yourself in the character and become the character. It’s hard to wake up every single day and play somebody for hours on end that you don’t enjoy playing. I loved playing Beckett and I’d love to play her again if there’s a possibility of doing an “Innocence 2.”

BK: Well thank you for your time Sophie and good luck at school. It will definitely be a fun time for you for sure.

SC: Thank you, I’m very excited and happy to be here. It’s far from home so it’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but I like it a lot.

Innocence” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.