SXSW is a great place for movies that want to give a sneak peek before a full premiere or release. First Reformed has also appeared at Venice Film Festival and others prior. The film is written and directed by Paul Schrader and will be released in theaters and on VOD on June 22, 2018. We know Ethan Hawke is an Austin-ite and was born here and we love seeing him around. Hawke also premiered his own “Blaze”at SXSW- a film about the music and spirit of Austin.
The description of the movie doesn’t hint at the dark and twisted turns that happen later in the film. It’s not your typical Hawke film that’s sweet and interesting (“Before Sunrise”). It’s deep, dark, and gory (we had to look away). The pastor of a small New England church (Ethan Hawke) spirals out of control after a soul-shaking encounter with an unstable environmental activist and his pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) in this chilling thriller.
The setting starts out with the beautiful fall/winter country scenes of old America in upstate New York and a quaint little white church. It starts out a bit slow with a one man show of a lonely, pathetic life of this pastor ,with few parishioners, who hasn’t shared with many his painful illness. Going through a tragedy (death of his son), divorce, illness, and more. We see him eating every meal alone at his table with a pathetic looking plate and candles. There were so many different topics covered in the story of this complicated man, it made the character deep and flawed and human. The story revolves around the anniversary year celebrations of this historic church.
The pastor’s faith continues to be challenged and he goes deeper into despair seeing nearby mega-churches be successful leaving this historic church, and him, behind. He later finds out that the church (led by Cedric the Entertainer’s character) is involved with immoral people who lead one of the worst companies contributing to negative environmental impact. This fuels his emotions, confrontations and downward spiral.
Hawke’s character continues to question religion, faith, his purpose, and life. He tries to counsel Mary’s husband who they think is suicidal but it fails to stop him which leaves her pregnant and alone. He starts to research her husbands activism for the environment. Then he steals the explosive vest from their house so we begin to worry. It starts to get so unbelievable and twisted yet intriguing.
For a brief moment, there’s a hint of hope for the pastor when he becomes closer to Mary through her grief. They both seem alone and depressed and a friendship forms. Perhaps even romance. It appears as though this will save him from his own demise and suicidal thoughts but instead the ending has him planning to blow himself up at the church celebration. When he sees Mary walk in, he changes plans and the controversy about the movie ending begins. Is he dreaming or is he dead? There’s a beautiful etherial long kiss where they spin and rise up above the ground into the starry atmosphere. We thought for a moment that love had saved him and this was the end. But as Schrader admitted, he really didn’t know if the pastor actually committed suicide or he was amidst a dream at the end of the film.
Overall the movie is a deep character directorial that is provocative and artistic. It’s everything a good indie-style film is meant to be. We’d love it more without all the gore at the end but as a thriller, people love this. It’s obvious that today’s biggest challenge to our world-climate change is front and center. We can assume Schrader and his actor’s share this passion for saving our planet. Other huge topics were included: religion, depression/suicide, corporate greed, and more.