Movies

First Reformed Was the Role Ethan Hawke’s Entire Career Has Been Leading Up To

The 2018 Movie Club: Entry 10.

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.
Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by A24.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Friends,

Recently, I took what used to feel like a real risk. I introduced two films I’m passionate about to someone who had never even heard of them and could very well have hated them: my mom. The movies were Losing Ground, Kathleen Collins’ remarkable independent feature from 1982, thought to be the first feature-length American film directed by a black woman since the early 20th century, and Samuel Fuller’s classic noir thriller The Naked Kiss (1964), starring an eerily primped and lacquered Constance Towers as a former sex worker snared in moral compromise. Two films that had profound effects on me the first time I saw them.

Anyway, maybe you guys know this routine: You take care not to set the movie up to fail. You avoid overselling it beforehand. When mom chose The Naked Kiss for us to watch based solely on the title, all I said was, “Good movie!” It’s only one of my very favorite films by probably my favorite ever American director—but why tell her that? I wanted to know what my mom, who isn’t a critic and has no investment in film history, thought of the movie without that sense of obligation.

Anyway, Mom liked Losing Ground and snored through The Naked Kiss, just as she’d snored through Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge the night before. Yes, she was tired, in the way that holidays make you realize how tired you are. But it was also clear that the films bored her. I got a kick out of her candor. She should become a critic.

If being a critic has taught me anything, it’s that while the art of movies is serious, it’s not only critics who take their own opinions on movies too seriously. It all feels too personal. We’ve fashioned taste into an avatar for our fuller personalities, experiences, even personhood, so that an insult to the art we love smacks of insult to us personally or, in the case of films that are benchmarks for representation, to everyone the film “represents.” I gotta admit: It’s a cycle of discourse that I find pretty boring. Like what you like. My little cousin just told me he disliked Black Panther—a film I enjoy. For him, ostensibly the film’s target audience, what matters isn’t how much the film “matters,” but the fact that he thought the action sucked. Critics absolutely should care about the larger questions—but they could afford, I think, to be a little more like my mom and cousin.

And less like me, the idiot who feels wracked with guilt for not liking films I’m either “supposed” to love or which all my friends love. I was wary of our conversation wading into The Favourite, because I don’t care for The Favourite, and increasingly feel like a hater. For me, it’s empty calories, a film that’s just mean enough to entice us into thinking it’s truly nasty—just proximate enough to the diva roars it knowingly invokes to seem transgressive without ever really learning to roar on its own. It was recently suggested to me that disliking The Favourite might mean that a critic has “problems with women’s stories”—never mind that it was directed and co-written by a guy, never mind that the women in my life who’ve seen it suggest no clear consensus in its favor. It’s the kind of take that makes my brain want to emergency eject onto the pavement—exactly the disingenuous argument about art that I simply don’t feel like having anymore, because I have so many pressing questions about the art itself.

Truly, so many questions. I was taken with Chang-dong Lee’s beloved Burning, in which Steven Yeun is as much of a riot as advertised and the varnished obliqueness of debut actress Jong-seo Jeon is truly beguiling. But after I saw it, I came home and flooded friends with texts that I realized weren’t totally appreciated, questions about the film’s various layers of mystery, which I thought obscured what was so pleasurable and scintillating about its initial setup. At some point, Jeon’s character disappears from the film, and it turns into a pursuit of this disappearance. But she, standing right in front of us, is the film’s most enticing, alienating mystery. How much worse off the film was for needing its true mystery to somehow surpass her!

Is that petty? It doesn’t even compare to how I feel about A Quiet Place, a movie that not only makes sex (or at least good, loud sex) seem tragically impractical thanks to killer monsters with supersensitive hearing—it goes out of its way to open in a well-stocked pharmacy, suggesting that its characters know where the birth control is. And yet. And yet. Here we are, trying to have a baby in a bathtub, ear monsters be damned. It’s a film about a family that’s tragically beholden to both its mourning and its will to survive—a nice idea, and a good way to psychologize a monster movie—but it doesn’t know how to dramatize that, really. It’s a direct relative of Hereditary—a film that I wish had just been a drama—in that these are the 2018 releases that felt most undermined by the true implications of their premises. I just have to get this off of my chest: Hereditary’s overabundance of contrivances aggravated the hell out of me. A better film would make all of these contrivances feel like mysterious bits of world building. Hereditary, by contrast, opens itself up to skepticism. Teenagers making a gourmet chocolate nut cake for a party, with no potato chips in sight—not because the world of this film is so strange that teens are bougie master chefs for no reason, but very obviously because its opening act needs a character with a nut allergy to go berserk? A father, played by Gabriel Byrne, who despite being a therapist (per a quick glimpse of his computer) makes no effort to intervene in the psychological welfare of his family? A dog that barks at ghosts only half the time (when it’s convenient) but never alerts anyone to the rotting carcass in the attic? Don’t even get me started on the awkwardly ham-fisted gender-swapping of the demon, a final scene that plays as if it were written on set the day of. You can’t “It’s just a movie” me on this stuff, and they aren’t mere plot holes—they’re fundamental to the psychological portraiture of each film.

Meanwhile, yes: I’m the idiot who loves that spiritual crisis movie in which redemption depends on a pregnant woman named Mary. Guilty, your honor. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed was my favorite film of the year, though not merely because its plot gambits added up for me, nor because, in its exploration of a white guy’s turn to violent environmental radicalism, it flirts with topicality. It’s one of a handful of films I saw this year whose spot-on, stimulating, suggestive, overwhelming choices make me as giddy as a baby at supper: I just want to bounce around in my seat as I watch, for reasons that aren’t always immediately clear. If anything, what I liked is that so much of the film amounts to not much more than ideological flirtation. I don’t think it’s a pro-environment film; I think it’s a film about the slippery axes of belief, the miniature distinctions between grace and damnation, radicalism and enervating conservatism. That feeling Ethan Hawke’s character, the Rev. Toller, has early on, talking to a troubled parishioner, when he expresses a sense of heady intellectual excitement during the conversation—it me.

And it all hinges on such extraordinarily well-tuned performances—not only by Hawke, whose entire career, every ounce of likability, vulnerability, angry cynicism, and ineptitude his persona has racked up over the years, seems to be summed up here. He’s great, but I can’t say enough about Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles—a comedian I grew up watching on The Steve Harvey Show-—whose pastor in the film is an essential counterpoint to the Rev. Toller because, although representative of a damningly business-oriented ideological position himself, he’s also sincere, funny, a good pastor. He’s the kind of pastor I grew up knowing in communities of my own; you sense a scam, but not because his godliness is unreal. You love him anyway.

And on and on: the poised mysteriousness of the images; the grating talkiness of the voice-over (and the humor that this allows); the extremely deliberate sense of color and tone, such that when the Rev. Toller starts to fall down a rabbit hole of extremism, the entire film unsubtly but overwhelmingly darkens. Did I just talk myself into rewatching this movie? It’ll almost be a letdown, at this point, if my mom doesn’t fall asleep.

Kameron

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