Here’s the short version of Paul Schrader’s excellent new surrealist drama First Reformed, which played at Venice and Toronto last year and is now in theaters as an awards-caliber chaser for anyone who has ODed on blockbusters:
A priest (Ethan Hawke) with a nearly non-existent congregation is drawn into a domestic drama involving a wife (Amanda Seyfried) who fears her underemployed and perpetually distraught husband (Phillip Ettinger) is on the cusp of becoming an ecoterrorist. Isolated and in physical as well as spiritual decline, the priest finds the process of debating the husband to be absolutely invigorating. It’s the first thing to make him feel alive again since he lost his son in Iraq. Long after the apparent threat has been dealt with, however, the priest finds himself becoming self-radicalized and drawn to a more violent end. His year-long journey is communicated to us through a journal he regularly updates, gifting Hawke, in an otherwise masterfully restrained performance, various voice-over moments to offer us insight into his conflicted views on the world and his place in it.
To put it another way, the guy who wrote Taxi Driver is super worried about the world, particularly the environment. So, he wrote a movie about a man being consumed by a similar despair. Think of it as Taxi Driver meets Silence meets An Inconvenient Truth, or if you want to go way back, a modern-day Diary of a Country Priest (1951) with hints of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963).
It’s…well, the headlines speak for themselves:
As do the current leading Letterboxd reviews:
Of course, it was at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) screening of First Reformed where Hawke made recent headlines of his own with his provocative argument that movies are “an art form that’s been completely eaten by business.” He further went on to decry the various metrics we use to try and quantify movies, arguing, “Not only do we read about Black Panther’s box office success, but we read about its Rotten Tomatoes score.” In his mind, that cheapens the experience of movies and renders everything a competition.
As such, he probably wouldn’t like me to share the following: First Reformed is one of the best-reviewed films of the year. That is, if you go by or care about RottenTomatoes.
But it’s not all good. First Reformed is also one of the 10 most divisive films of the year, according to Business Insider’s recent measurement of the difference between RottenTomatoes critic and audience scores. Gemini and Ocean’s 8 are the only 2018 films with bigger gaps between what movie audiences think compared to critics. It’s not even as if audiences exactly hate First Reformed. They gave it a 75% on RT. It’s more that the critical love is so euphoric it can’t be matched by the non-film nerds of the world who might appreciate but also not totally get the big deal about seeing Ethan Hawke play a priest who turns into Travis Bickle.
That’s an argument being waged by very few people online right now, mostly because hardly anyone has actually seen First Reformed. It’s only just now expanded into more than 100 theaters, and after a full month of limited play it’s only sold around 200,000 tickets, which somehow qualifies as impressive for an indie movie these days. By comparison, Ocean’s 8 sold four times as many tickets in literally just its first 3 hours.
What that means is First Reformed needs far more help from critics, bloggers, and cinephiles than something like Ocean’s 8, yet at the same time in our zeal to convince others to see this movie through sheer, overwhelming enthusiasm we are creating a feedback loop where we’re really just shouting at ourselves. The noise is loud enough to convert some, but also repels or simply confuses others. That’s why, including First Reformed, three of the ten best-reviewed films of the year have also been met with far more muted reactions from actual moviegoers. See also: A Fantastic Woman, The Death of Stalin.
Perhaps, as Hawke pointed out, it’s something we’re only more aware of because of the metrics we use now. But this isn’t really new. In years past, while walking out of a movie rated as three or four stars in our local paper or maybe granted two thumbs up by Siskel & Ebert on At the Movies we’d grumble, “That was a two, two and half star movie, tops.” Now, we rush home to defy the RottenTomatoes composite score, which, with its percentage score strikes a more academic and thus far more scientific cord than a star rating. In the old days, the critics got letters from people who disagree with them; these days, that dissent is measured right on RT’s page for every movie.
However, we are in this increasingly peculiar space with movies where the middle class of the industry is long gone, the top is risk-averse and often boring, and the bottom is getting weirder and weirder. The brain drain away from the studios and over to the tech companies and TV networks has given us plenty of remarkably cinematic, but conventionally entertaining TV shows that would have once been Oscar movies or hip, mid-budget thrillers (seriously, The End of the F****** World is the best movie that’s not actually a movie I’ve watched this year). This has created an opening over on the film side on the bottom end of things for far more experimentally-inclined directors to play more exclusively to the film festival and cinephile crowd, who eat it up and wax poetic on social media.
That’s who First Reformed is for, but there wasn’t a lot of them with me in the theaters this weekend. Since no one I know was swayed by “Come on, it’s like Taxi Driver, but with a priest!”, I saw the film with 6 random strangers in a 70-seat theater, and half of them openly guffawed at the abrupt ending. Compare that to film critic Josh Larson’s exhilarated reaction: “Final moments: vision of salvation or act of damnation?”
FilmComment, a more academic-leaning quarterly put out by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is predictably hyperbolic in its First Reformed praise:
“First Reformed marks a considerable turning point for Schrader, a film thesis about the struggle for grace and faith in our modern world of hyperreality and despair, especially when the various stopgaps offered by society-organized religion, political institutions, ecological activism-seems various counterfeit. A breathtaking, taught work possessed of an otherworldly meditative stillness, it feels at once hauntingly out of time and haltingly urgent.”
A well-written analysis perfectly tailored to its audience.
I guess what’s tripping me up is I don’t know who my audience is, considering how much I ping-pong on this site from business news/analysis, comic book movie news and reactions, horror movie retrospectives, and film nerd movie reviews. So, to those of you might actually read this, would you have rather seen me engage in a Film Comment-like analysis of this major and important work of art? Or are you increasingly weary of overpraise and hype? Because for all of First Reformed’s greatness I also have an inclination to merely say this: It’s a slow burn. It’s not for everyone. But those who dig it will be thinking and talking about it for a long, long time.