'First Reformed': Paul Schrader's essential ecclesiastical wrestling match, revisited
For Paul Schrader, questing for answers where there are none is the ultimate folly. “First Reformed” is his portrait of a preacher lost so deep in the spiritual weeds, he seems ready to lie down and let hungry worms have him. It’s engrossing and unpredictable, a reflection of the extremity of modern times, and a bleak, relentlessly satirical sneer into the darkness. It’s a vicious and vital work, Schrader’s best in decades.
The film opens with a long, slow zoom on the First Reformed Church, shot and framed like a haunted house full of murderous demons. Presiding is the Rev. Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, anchoring the film with the most committed and intense performance of his career. Introduced to us as he pens longhand prayer-confessions into a diary, Toller writes how he won’t hold anything back; eventually, he writes how he plans to tear out this very page and destroy it. Even in the grip of unfettered honesty lies hypocrisy. This happens more than once.
His path to this state of futility is fraught with internal and external struggle. The narrative is the slow, tense squeeze of a constricting python - before you know it, your eyes are bulging. Toller’s Sunday sermons float through a mostly empty First Reformed, located in chilly Snowbridge, New York. It’s a lovely, historical building that nobody visits, on the cusp of a coronation celebrating its 250th year in existence. Toller gives guided tours, then hocks branded ball caps and a dwindling supply of T-shirts.
First Reformed is dismissively nicknamed “the souvenir shop,” and is under the jurisdiction of Abundant Life, a 5,000-capacity megachurch that Schrader surely named with a derisive chuckle. Toller’s superior is Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric Kyles (better known as Cedric the Entertainer) with a sly wink, especially when the character points out that Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” while he was in the outhouse.
Jeffers senses something troubling Toller, and he’s right: this man at an impasse is hitting two bottles - Pepto Bismol and booze. One medicates his guts, the other, his soul, for better or worse. He puts off seeing a doctor. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a devoted member of the First Reformed congregation, approaches him for help. Her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), is a radical environmentalist fresh out of incarceration. She’s pregnant; Michael wants an abortion. Can Toller counsel him?
Please note the use of “can.” He will counsel him, but his capability is in question. They converse. Michael posits a number of facts about the critical state of the Earth’s environment. It’s no place, he argues, for a newborn child. Toller’s boilerplate platitudes ring like a handbell at a heavy metal concert in the face of such alarming statistics. During the talk, Michael turns around the interrogation lamp, and we learn Toller is a former military chaplain - like his father and grandfather - who encouraged his son to enlist. He died in the Iraqi conflict, and Toller’s marriage imploded.
Toller is a pathetic character, malleable and desperate. We sense his woe, feel his pain, and perhaps empathize with his crisis of faith, his inability to conjure a false sense of certainty. He might be worthy of your prayer, if Schrader didn’t consider the act deserving of mockery and scorn - it’s difficult not to hear him echoing the worthless and empty “thoughts and prayers” shibboleths so frequently offered by modern public figures, who say little and do even less in the wake of real-life tragedy.
As Toller reaches a seemingly inevitable boiling point, Schrader stokes the narrative so it’s fraught with existential anxiety. Where do piety and communion fit in a world so terminably corrupt? (Perhaps reason provides a guiding light, but that’s deeper subtext, an argument that’ll ripen after two belts of whiskey.) Schrader famously penned screenplays “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Taxi Driver,” two films “First Reformed” inevitably recalls. It’s not pastiche. It’s a variation on a theme, a continued wrestling match with the most profound questions of our time and our humanity. It’s a provocative, disturbing, idiosyncratic film, and one of the year’s best.
MPAA rating: R for some disturbing violent images
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill
Director: Paul Schrader
Run time: 113 minutes