Indie distributor A24 continues their hot streak with two of 2018's best films, Paul Schrader's First Reformed and Ari Aster's Hereditary. Both films are now on Blu-ray in North America and we took a look at the releases below
In Paul Schrader's First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) minister's to his small congregation at a local historical church while attempting to cope with the loss of his son and his marriage. He soon finds himself having an acute crisis of faith when he's called in to help counsel the husband of one of his congregants who finds the world to be to painful to bear. The more he digs into this man's story, the more his faith begins to crumble, until it's all he can do to keep getting up in the morning and fighting the good fight. When his church's reconsecration ceremony turns into a corporate and political free-for-all, Toller's faith is all but gone. Can anyone help him?
Paul Schrader is one of my favorite filmmakers, his Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is an avant-garde masterpiece, and his work on films like Cat People, Hardcore, and writing for Taxi Driver are unmistakably brilliant. With First Reformed, he attempts to create a film about faith and the challenges of maintaining one's faith in the face of horrendous pain and strife. Schrader frames the film in a claustrophobic 1.37:1 aspect ratio, both mirroring the look of those great films by De Sica and Bresson, as well as defining the mise-en-scene in much the same physical shape of the small chapel that is his salvation.
Hawke's performance is one of intense power, he's given multiple unwieldy mouthfuls of monologue in voiceover that are part of his character's journal that he manages to make sound natural in spite of their arcane grammar. He's ably supported by Amanda Seyfried as the pregnant woman who called him in to help her husband, and Cedric the Entertainer in a surprisingly effective dramatic turn as the leader of a mega church that sponsors Rev. Toller's relic. All of the performances work wonderfully, but without Hawke's complete dedication to his character, First Reformed would feel very trite.
A filmmaker from the old school genre world, it would be a surprise if Schrader didn't add a bit of fire to First Reformed, and he does in the form of a violence crisis of faith that threatens to explode, both literally and figuratively, all over the film. Rev. Toller's deteriorating faith turns violent in an attempt to regain the moral high ground and atone for all the bad done in the world, but it doesn't quite work out the way he wanted it to. The finale is an exceptional and ambiguous series of images and feelings that leaves the audience to make up their own minds.
A24's Blu-ray looks and sounds great. Those averse to the 1.37:1 aspect ratio might be irritated, but it is what the film demands, so suck it up. Schrader's palette is subtle, with only one great scene of visual flourish, but the toen is handled well and the colors, fine detail, and grain structure all look great.
There aren't many extras listed for the film, but the ones that are present are excellent. First up is the featurette Discernment: Contemplating First Reformed, a fifteen minute EPK style set of interviews that gives a viewer a feel for the making of the film and some of the decisions made on screen. Decent, but not a knockout. The other extra, however, is exceptional. We get a feature length audio commentary from Schrader in which he discusses the 'why's and 'how's of First Reformed in great and humble detail. Not only are we privy to his process in regards to everything from casting to set design, we also get incredible thematic insights into the film and where it came from in his mind. He's a wonderful speaker and incredibly knowledgeable, making this a must listen commentary, one of the best I've heard from a filmmaker on his own work. Astounding.