Four-time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke delivers another sensational performance in this complicated and dark story set in a small town in upstate New York. Hawkes’ latest screen gem, however, isn’t spectacular enough to overcome a slow, depressing journey that tries too hard to do too much—sacrificing any chance for a substantial look at religion’s attempt to save the environment.
A tedious “First Reformed” finds Hawkes’ character, the Reverend Toller, dryly preaching to his congregation while struggling with his own internal demons. Stressed to the point of having to confess his thoughts in a personal journal, Hawkes attempts to counsel himself to no avail. Instead, the Reverend despairs into his troubles to the point of alcoholism and thoughts of suicide as remedies.
The film’s most glaring flaw is the razor-thin storytelling on specifics and overall focus. At times, this movie pits religion vs. the environment in a compelling look at big oil and how contributions to the church can be influenced (or stopped) as Reverend Toller weighs in on the activism.
In other parts of “First Reformed,” the health and wellbeing of Hawke’s Toller character is barely analyzed. We find his health seriously deteriorating, but nary an explanation for what truly drives him. Is it love, a freedom to speak out on environmental issues—or just burnout from a church too small and isolated from society causing his turmoil? Regardless, the film’s sermon quickly dissolves to the point of Reverend Toller wanting to don a suicide vest to take himself, and possibly others, out. It’s here, at this bizarre junction, that “First Reformed” ends up feeling at a loss of energy and contrived.
“First Reformed” painfully transgresses from religious isolationism to pondering death and destruction in order to make political statements. It squanders any effectiveness by never going deep enough on either topic. The strong believability of a lonely church leader battling alcoholism and health issues is lost when corporate donations and environmental stances convolute the film’s larger impact.
Through no fault of a splendid Hawke and stellar supporting cast, “First Reformed” never fully tackles the Reverend Toller’s personal issues alluded to in his nightly note-taking. Just as Hawke’s character rips out his diary notes after mere days, this film fails to press forward on any one issue long enough to give viewers a satisfying message and conclusion.