Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a priest having a crisis of conscience in the new movie from writer/director Paul Schrader, First Reformed. Toller is a former military chaplain who now serves in a small town while still dealing with the death of his own son, though not always in healthy ways.
The priest becomes entwined in the life of Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a member of his congregation after her activist husband commits suicide. That leads him down a rabbit hole exposing the utter depravity of humanity in the modern world, something that shakes his faith even more than it has been.
Hawke is shown as a priest of some sort in closeup, looking slightly off-camera as if he’s contemplating some point. The appearance of a fiery blaze cutting horizontally across the middle of his face seems to hint that there’s some conflict or potential division happening within him in the story, but there’s no copy to extrapolate on that idea, just a couple quotes from critics praising the film.
Toller explains his plan to keep, and then destroy, a journal as the trailer opens. We see him explaining to someone that he’s racked with guilt over the death of his son, who he encouraged to enlist in the military only to die in Iraq. That’s causing problems for him in his role as a priest and many people around him are trying to get him the help he clearly needs. When a parishioner calls him and shows him that someone in her house has been building bombs he dives deep – too deep – into the darkest corners of the internet and begins to question what is or isn’t a sin and whether God has a plan for any of us.
Hawke looks like he delivers a tight, coiled, powerful performance here as the priest with too much on his conscience and no outlet for his doubts. It’s all repression and inner turmoil that manifests as a quiver in his voice in public and a penchant for scotch in private. The story isn’t super-clear here but that’s alright, what we’re being sold is the performance and the atmosphere created by Schrader.
Online and Social
There’s just the trailer, synopsis and a few other details on the single page A24 created for the movie. While the movie did get some support on the studio’s social profiles, it was primarily busy promoting its horror release Hereditary so didn’t give this one a whole lot of attention.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Nothing I’ve seen to date, but I’d be willing to bet I’ll be seeing a few retargeted online ads now that I’ve visited the website.
Media and Publicity
The movie was one of those announced to be screened at the SXSW Film Festival, where it was very well received.
A short profile of Hawke mentioned this was one of several films he had coming out in the near future while also allow him to openly lobby for the chance to give a “meaningful” performance in a big budget sci-fi/fantasy film. He also talked here about what it like working with Schrader and what got him involved in the project. When he showed up on late night he joked about the different kinds of roles he’s taken over the years and how the big-scale films that feature lots of guns generally pay better than the small indie projects.
I really wish there had been more of a focus presented in the campaign, specifically around how this is a story about media overload and the kind of trauma that can cause and contribute to. That topic is hinted at in some of the interviews Hawke did and in the trailer, though even less so. It’s certainly being sold as a dark drama of the crisis faced by one man, I just think there could have been a slightly tighter picture painted.
Aside from that, the main attraction is that this is a new Paul Schrader film, something buoyed by the buzz that’s come out of the festival screenings. That probably won’t be enough to propel the movie to any great heights in terms of crossover success in the mainstream audience, but for those who come across the campaign there’s some good stuff offered here.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.