New York Film Festival Report No. 4 (First Reformed, Wonderstruck)


This is my fourth report from the festival, discussing two movies that I wasn’t expecting to see. But, hey, crazy things happen at the New York Film Festival!

First Reformed
During the Q&A session after the screening, writer-director Paul Schrader was asked about his influences. He shrugged off and said: “let’s just say there will be a lot of term papers written about this film.” Indeed, First Reformed is the kind of movie that is designed to fascinate young cinephiles, and that’s a good thing. Schrader admits to lifting from such dry Europeans as Dreyer, Tarkovsky and Bergman while making the picture, though the most obvious influence is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Schrader’s movie also focuses on a priest -played by Ethan Hawke- who looks after a small chapel in Upstate New York and, well, keeps a diary.

Schrader’s goal seems to have been to make a movie that fits in the tradition of all the filmmakers mentioned above, and the many movies they made on the subject of faith and despair. I think he succeeded. First Reformed is not as severely designed and deliberately paced as some of its predecessors, but it is similarly ambitious and audacious in its filmmaking. Hawke gives what is most likely the best performance of his career as a faithful man who is confronted with deep emptiness. Like most of the other movies in this genre, it is all a slow build-up to a bold finale. It’s the kind of ending that shakes you off of your seat. The kind of ending that is hard to understand, but one can’t stop thinking about.

First Reformed has been picked up by A24 and will be released early next year. 

Todd Haynes is an incredible filmmaker. He makes some of the most carefully crafted movies in the world  with the help of some of the most talented collaborators in the business. Cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell, and composer Carter Burwell -to name a few- are all among the very best of their respective crafts. Together with Haynes, they’ve made an immaculately crafted movie. The detailed recreation of New York City’s past, the wonderfully old-fashioned score, and the playful sound design, Wonderstruck is simply gorgeous. It’s almost tragic that such unparalleled talent is stuck working with a such weak script.

Author Brian Selznick adapted his own novel -about two deaf children, in two different time periods, who make fateful pilgrimages to New York City- to the screen. I haven’t read the source material, but from what I hear, the movie adheres to it quite closely. I got the feeling, watching Wonderstruck, that Selznick had a tough time translating his literary devices to the language of film. We get so little personality out of the two protagonists, that it’s easy to suspect the novel being told in the first person, able to access the characters’ thoughts and inner monologues. As written, the characters remain a little too blank, and the screenplay comes off as clunky. Especially when it is surrounded by such amazing craftsmanship.

As sad as it is that Haynes doesn’t quite manage to pull it all together, I can’t stress enough how beautiful the film is. Especially in its third act, when a shift in visual style allows production designer Mark Friedberg to show off with some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen.

Wonderstruck will open in theaters on October 20. 


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