Saturday, June 23, 2018

Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED: an unintentional remake of Beatriz at Dinner

Style- and character-wise, FIRST REFORMED, the new film written and directed by Paul Schrader, has almost nothing in common with last year's movie, Beatriz at Dinner, written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta. Theme- and content-wise, however, the two films are close enough to seem like two sides of the same coin.

Consider: both films present a "religious" protagonist who, in suffering through a spiritual crisis, comes upon a person of wealth and power who is doing indelible harm to the environment, both locally and globally. Our protagonist sees the opportunity to rid the world of this man, and then must decide if and how to act on this.

Granted, Mr. Schrader (the writer/director is shown at right) has a sensibility and style that could hardly be more different from those of the Arteta/White combo. The latters' film is as entertaining and full of life as the former's is bleak and dour: think Bresson by way of Bergman.

Further, though in Schrader's film, his leading character -- a priest in the titular Protestant First Reformed Church (played as well as possible under the circumstances, by Ethan Hawke, shown above and below) --  is an alcoholic in danger of losing the sparse congregation he barely has, the Beatriz character is equally religious, a masseuse and healer who has no "church," yet from all we see and hear about her and her history, has enabled patient after patient to embrace a better life.

Do you find it as odd-yet-telling as do I that so many of our critics so easily embrace the "angsty" and by-now thoroughly done-to-death spiritual crisis of a male priest in a brick-and-mortar church, while pretty much ignoring something just as vital and important experienced by a woman who is simply what you might call "spiritual" but who has no edifice/congregation? (Salma Hayek in the role of Beatriz gives an even deeper and infinitely more varied performance than does the highly constrained Mr. Hawke.)

Both films leave their protagonist, as well as their audience, up in the air, yet Beatriz does this in a manner that is absolutely understandable and acceptable because the question of commiting a murder in order to stop something hugely evil shakes its heroine's individual morality to its core. In both films, the increasingly timely and vital question is asked, What action can we/must we take to help stop the destruction of our world? The answer is right in front of us in both films, but can that road be taken by a supposedly moral person?

Arteta and White cannot answer because they know that there is no answer in terms of a single person being able to change what must come from an entire country/government. Schrader's answer is almost shockingly melodramatic and predictable. Without, I hope, giving away spoilers, what we have here goes something like this: I must do this -- sacrifice myself along with many others, some of them innocent -- in order for good to triumph over evil. And then: Oh, my god, I can't do this because everything has suddenly changed.

How it changes and why makes the damning difference to this pristine-yet-overwrought and very over-rated film. Unfortunately for intelligent audiences who've seen a few movies over their lifetime, the film's climax and denouement are handled so predictably and obviously that viewers will figure out just about every step before it happens. And then be frustrated by the simple-minded silliness of it all. But because this is such serious stuff, folk, we ask that you try not to laugh.

That First Reformed has received near-unanimously good reviews boggles my mind because the movie spells literally everything out and leaves so little room for wiggle. It is also relentlessly dour and slow-paced. On the plus side is the excellent performance from Cedric the Entertainer (as Cedric Kyles), shown above, in the role of the minister of the town's mega-church. Just as he did in the little seen but terrific Grassroots, Cedric brings his keen intelligence and his especially engaging quality to a role that could easily descend into cliche.

In the distaff lead, Amanda Seyfried (above) can do little more than fill out what is a standard female role. Victoria Hill does better playing the church-woman with the hots for Hawke who simply cannot take 'no' for an answer.

TrustMovies rushed out to see First Reformed once it opened down here in South Florida because he is a long-time fan of Schrader's work as both writer and director. As other critics have pointed out, this movie would seem to encapsulate so many of the themes and idea that have been important to the filmmaker throughout his life and career. So true. But, gosh, I wish these ideas had come to better fruition.

From A24 and running 113 minutes, the movie may still be playing in a few theaters. To find one near you, click here.

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