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First Reformed

18 Jun

First Reformed –– written and directed by Paul Schrader. Drama. 114 minutes. Color 2018.
★★★★★
The Story: The pastor of a famed New England Church struggles with crises of faith, ethics, mission, courage, and his own past.
~
How does an actor convey all these at once?

He never conveys them. He holds still, opens his pores, and lets the audience convey them for him.

Of course, that’s the way it’s written and directed and filmed, but Ethan Hawke is an actor in the past covered with a sheen and endowed with an unfortunate smirk at the corners of his mouth, so he has never been an actor of much penetration, but rather an actor of unearned smugness.

But, recognizing himself to be not an A-list actor, the movies he has chosen to be in have been more interesting than his work in them. This has served him well and kept him before us. This has been true of him since he was young, which he no longer is. Here he plays a pastor of 47 which is also the age he is. He looks every day of it.

And he has largely mislaid his basket of acting tricks, we get only one empty side-long glance. His pushy charm and the coin of youth are gone.

He is not an actor who inhabits a character or whom a character inhabits. In his watchfulness as an actor there is the sense that he is not an actor at all, but a writer. So his instrument is limited and squeezed.

But what has always been so is that he is an actor who is present for the character to be present. And, oftentimes in screen acting, more than this is unwanted.

We are told about his minister; he tells us things; others tell us things; things are shown about him; the camera watches what he does, and all these things inform us with what we must learn in order for us to participate in creating this character.

So Ethan Hawke has begun to grow up in his craft. Hawke does not distract us or force a point of view of the character on us, so he is never remote. If, for narrative purposes, the character feels despair, we see despair in Hawke’s eyes and face. Otherwise not. If the character drinks, and it is narratively unnecessary for us not to know why, Hawke never betrays the story by detouring it into making whisky understandable. If the character is meant to internalize the ravage of the environment, the domination of the plutocracy, the fatness of the megachurch, his thoughtless fatherhood, he holds true to an ancient family and social code of consideration for others which would compress these influences and never show them. And we believe it. He does not indicate they are in him, and because he does not, we intuit that they must be in him.

Hawke keeps the physical circumstances of his body small. It’s a part which the slightest gesture would betray the role into overacting.

So we are not interested in Ethan Hawke here because he is, like Bette Davis, an actor of passionate histrionic drive whose physical show stuns us. No. Hawke simply leaves that out and lets the audience do the job of bringing the character alive in Hawke’s flesh. Hawke’s presence and the character become concurrent.

This is important because of the style of the film which is ruled by the decorum of church settings, music, and deportment. The film does not rush. It is as ritualized as a processional. Words are allowed to be heard. Scenes are allowed to develop. Arguments are allowed to ripen. We are in a film of grown up matters. There are social and spiritual and religious dialogues. We have to hear them out, for we too, as audience, have our pastoral duty. We see that characters do not realize that some of this formality is so beside the point that it is dangerous.

The film lets music play its role but never to enforce mood, but to counterpoint it. The camera is as steady as the style of the tale it tells. The acting of the others confirms the director’s style, which is to reveal the story straightforwardly and no more fully than our digestion permits.

With First Reformed we are constantly in the experience of story. Paul Schrader is like Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman in this.

Hawke’s character has lost his ability to pray. Every human on earth loses their ability to pray every day. Each of us struggles towards an ethos vivid to us. Hawke’s character has lost this struggle. What is he to do?

I honor this film, everything about it, and everything in it.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Method, Ethan Hawke, PERSONAL DRAMA

 
 
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