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Ethan Hawke in "First Reformed"

by Chris Feil

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a bit like running a psychological and spiritual marathon, an unflinching look at despair in the modern era but told with the style of Tarkovsky and Bresson to lend its concerns a punishing timelessness. All the critical hosannas it has received are spot on, but rest assured that this is one tough, bruising sit. What keeps us from running away from the trauma is the absorbing honesty of Ethan Hawke’s showcase performance.

Hawke stars as Reverend Toller, the priest of a tiny congregation who joined the church in response to his grief over a son lost in overseas combat. Faced with a parishioner taking climate change activism to fatalist ends, he begins a descent into the dark reaches of the soul, the kind that can only end in his damnation or salvation. The actor grants him such specific humanity that makes the film all the more difficult to watch, yet impossible to turn away from.

The performance works on many levels. Toller’s ensuing implosion has all the warning signs of our world in collapse. And its impulse to knowing self-destruction. As much as Hawke reveals to us (and by doing so very little), he provides the richest insight into Toller’s headspace when he is evasive. His Toller is a bad liar and least convincing when he is lying to himself. Drowning himself in booze and indulged darkness, his personal pain becomes the walls that close in on him.

Part of what makes the film so difficult to bear is how transplanted we are into Toller’s suffering, a testament to Hawke’s ability to invite the audience into the headspace he’s playing. Every movement the actor makes is like watching the man pick a scab until it becomes a festering wound, plumbing the depths of his psyche to physically felt effect in the audience. Schrader avoids simple answers and has a similarly focused starring player in Hawke - he’s all tension without exhale, fragile but pristine. It’s a performance as profound as the film itself.

As ever, Hawke makes it look so damn easy. High praise when First Reformed is such a rigorous beast.

My hopes are not particularly high that this career peak for Hawke could translate into an Oscar play - the film is challenging stuff and faces a long year of contenders ahead. But you can rest easy that when we discuss the actor and the inevitable day comes when his natural gifts are no longer taken for granted, First Reformed will be one of his most discussed performances.

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Reader Comments (10)

Hawke is very underrated and he’s capable of being captivating as he’s approved again and again (see Gattaca, Boyhood and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead for him at his very best with honorable mentions to the before sunset films, training day and assault on precinct 13).

June 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

This magnificent film may struggle at the box office. But I honestly think, come year's end, critical awards bodies end will be unable to ignore Ethan Hawke's stunning performance. Which should help put it squarely into the Oscar conversation. This is a career best achievement for an actor with an already stellar body of work. An Oscar nomination seems almost assured and I wouldn't count out the possibility of an actual win. Whatever happens, "First Reformed" is austere, intense and eloquent - the year's first great film.

June 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKen

I have always loved Hawke's performances. He should be a much bigger star than he is. I am looking forward to seeing this movie in the near future.

He was on the Graham Norton Show this week.

June 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I'm hearing great things about the film as I'm just relieved to see that Paul Schrader has made another great film after a period of bad to mediocre stuff including that misguided collaboration with Lindsay Lohan. Plus, I really hope Ethan Hawke gets some accolades as the dude is continuously underrated.

June 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Yes I think he will win at least one majoe critics prize.

June 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

He should have gotten awards recognition for Maudie, He was superb in that film.

June 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterArghavan

I saw it last night. A powerhouse performance from Hawke. I’m hoping the Supporting Actress buzz will begin for Amanda Seyfried who was also magnificent in the film!

June 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSean K.

Hawke is my #1 in Best Actor right now and the film is my overall #1 as well for Picture and Original Screenplay (Schrader comes in 2nd for Director to Lynne Ramsay).

I actually think a Screenplay nod for Schrader might be more likely than an Actor nod for Hawke; the writers’ branch of AMPAS will often notice early-year releases that the other categories ignore (take, for example, The Big Sick, or The Lobster).

June 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamDenTel

I think your Best Actor bets are going to be way off. Right now, you have three Best Actor contenders all from biopics (Carell - Welcome to Marwen, Gosling - First Man, Christian Bale - Backseat). In your next five, you have FOUR more - (Carell - Beautiful Boy, Dafoe - At Eternity's Gate, Hedges - Boy Erased, Jackman - The Front Runner).

That is, frankly, INSANE and doesn't make a bit of sense. Given how the Academy is pushing hard to make its membership younger and more diverse and more challenging in terms of material, you honestly think that 9 white guys in the hoariest of all star vehicles - the biopic - are going to dominate the discussion this year. Sorry, I think you are just way off base in this. You might want to reconsider this roster.

August 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Lewis

In my previous post, I wrote "9 white guys". I forgot to include Robert Redford (The Old Man & The Gun) and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody). I don't think Academy voters are that lazy to ONLY consider biopics in the Best Actor category.

August 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Lewis

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