First Reformed (2018)

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The writer behind great and iconic films ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ has, it’s fair to say, had quite a run of middling to poor releases but this recent drama has gained lots of attention and acclaim. It’s a slow-burning watch that sheds light on Paul Schrader’s quality scripting of central figures facing conflict.

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a reverend at the First Reformed church in New York, a building soon facing its 250th anniversary. In the build up to this, Toller begins keeping track of his thoughts in a journal for a year. He also gets asked by church-goer Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to help counsel her husband Michael, who is becoming isolated through his strong views about global warming.

In contrast to what a lot of people seem to be saying, I found the first 90 minutes or so of the film to be the strongest. The final 20 are indeed out there moments and give the movie a bold spiritual identity, but I liked the gentile almost unnerving pace of watching the reverend’s character being set up and then dismantled as his paths and beliefs cross with Michael.

This conflict of belief makes for an engrossing watch and Schrader keeps the majority of scenes in a static, square aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This screening gives the film a vaguely claustrophobic feel, his decision to have little-to-no non-diegetic sound also adds a theatricality to the movie, as if they’re playing out these unexpected turn of events on n intimate stage. It’s only as the final minutes arrive that the camera becomes more animated, circling around characters and moving more than it had been, this works with the dramatic interpretative ending and makes the choices of Toller that much more elevated.

‘First Reformed’ does have transcendent moments which have us literally floating through the beauty of Mother Earth and the consequent destruction it bears, thanks to the actions of the human race but it’s this moment that the weighty climate change theme becomes too on the nose. However a scene between Toller and Michael discussing the horrors of pollution, deforestation etc is brilliant; it’s fuelled with bitterness from Michael and struggle from Toller as he worries for the future and questions his faith.

Amanda Seyfried excels in a turn as a grief-stricken wife bearing a child. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she’s called Mary, as Seyfried plays a comforting welcome presence to the toils of Toller’s journey. Their pairing certainly takes unpredictable turns but she and Hawke act the binding of their souls well enough to almost forgive how annoyingly the film took me out of the story by the end. Ethan Hawke is quite hypnotising as this pastor facing near Travis Bickle levels of anguish. He never over eggs the performance, ensuring the subtlety of Toller gives him that shaky edge of instability and his problems become a believable oil slick on his life.

If you don’t like slow films…or like Trump, you don’t believe that climate change is a thing then this emphatically underlined story of faith, loss and a parable for the modern era with politics and global warming, is not for you. Aside from a hugely disappointing ending, this is a film that’s thought provoking and will stick with me.

7/10

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Beast (2018)

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Stalking the screen with effective tension is this beastly feature. It certainly has bark and bite, as we see this dark thriller take hold and swallow you up, in a dangerously palpable mystery.

Celebrating her birthday is Moll (Jessie Buckley), who ends up dancing the night away before crossing paths with the possibly shady Pascal (Johnny Flynn), the next morning. There have been a series of grim murders plaguing the island and it isn’t long until people suspect Moll’s new connection, as the man behind the disappearances.

This is a debut work from Michael Pearce; who unarguably knows how to layer on the tension. The film almost sweats out a deep and engaging psychological tale, as if Pearce is allowing us to peer through a magnifying glass at all the worrying little details possessed by Moll and Pascal, details that keep us questioning their relationship and the trail of murders.

Coinciding with Pearce’s fantastically hypnotic visuals is a score from Jim Williams that drips with almost spine-chilling strength. The entire look of this movie is that of a frightening British drama, with a cold dirtiness and a somewhat fun immersion into thriller territory that is enhanced by the plot. The narrative is one that definitely kept me guessing and the end is one I could talk about for some time yet, it’s visceral, unexpected and almost reaches the realm of being powerful.

Saying all of this, I don’t know whether it’s a film I’d watch again and it’s a story that I was a little disappointed didn’t end up being darker or more twisted. The film also slightly suffers from feeling like a slow tick-tock aspect, which does make it feel a little bit long. I’d definitely say the film is strongest in the first two thirds.

The acting is blindingly great, some of the most captivating performances I’ve ever seen. Flynn excels at playing this secretive, maybe dodgy character that turns up in Moll’s life. There’s a great balance of masculinity and softer love he portrays as he gets wrapped up in the whirlwind of the flame haired Buckley. She is incredible, the emotions she goes through are numerous and each one is carefully performed, drawing you into her as a character. It’s almost a tour de force show that she puts on and Moll comes to vivid and horrific life thanks to this.

This could be bad or good but I still don’t really know how I feel with ‘Beast’ and perhaps that’s testament to how fearless and different it is. The movie is rife with tension and I can at least safely say that it’s two leading stars ensure you cannot look away.

7/10