Harrowing, but with a wry humor, and utterly transporting, Paul Schrader has synthesized his complex religious upbringing with modern anxieties into a trenchant portrait of tormented souls in “First Reformed.”
The title is the name of the church in the film, a modest but stately structure in upstate New York that’s older than the United States, but you’d hardly know that it’s nearing its 250th anniversary with the bright white walls and well-preserved pews.
First Reformed is led by Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man in his late 40s who drinks too much and cares for himself too little and who has promised to tell the honest truth of himself, his doubts, his anxieties, his shortcomings, even his typos in a handwritten diary for one year, which he’ll burn after the experiment is over.
Toller is a solitary man who spends his nights alone with a bottle of whiskey and his thoughts and writing, which we’re invited to access through voiceover. His days aren’t much different, and he barely even gets respite from his own mind while giving sermons — First Reformed seems to only have about five parishioners, one of whom is his ex-wife. However, she, like most of the town, actually belongs to the local mega-church Abundant Life, run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles).
Thus it must come as a sort of relief to get a true challenge and an opportunity to work with the people he’s there to serve when one day Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is a radical environmentalist so certain of the earth’s imminent destruction that he’d rather terminate his wife’s pregnancy than bring a child into a decaying world. He’s also got a vest outfitted with explosives stashed in his shop. Although Mary considers herself an environmentalist, she would also like to keep the child and get rid of the vest. As a lifelong churchgoer, she puts her trust in Toller to help.
But despite Toller’s sincere efforts, Michael still resorts to suicide soon after in a way that ensures Toller will discover his body.
It’s this event that sends Toller down very different path in the lead-up to the 250th anniversary celebration. He begins to question his own faith and belief in hope and the future, as it relates to what humans are doing to the earth and the systems around him that preach righteousness while enabling polluters and taking their profits. He has his own ghosts to contend with, and personal demons, and we as the audience get an up close look at a man’s spiral — whether it’s to elevated consciousness or paranoid insanity is a question that Schrader lets hang.
Schrader’s movie is a talky one, but the words are precise and compelling and the images entrancing, whether it’s Pepto-Bismol swirling into a tumbler of whiskey or an urgent flyover of bleak industrial landscapes. While there are obvious shades of his previous works, including his most famous script “Taxi Driver,” ”First Reformed” also feels more mature and studied — a culmination of a lifetime of examining the human condition, with a perfect vessel to convey those ideas in Hawke.
As Toller, Hawke delivers one the best performances of his career. He carries the film and all its complex ideas on his shoulders, which is a burden that visibly wears on him as the story progresses and as he becomes more alienated.
If there are weak spots, it is perhaps in the writing of the women who seem to be more symbols than characters. Mary is the angelic, blonde, pious and pregnant one there to inspire passion in Toller, and Esther (Victoria Hill), the ex, is the brunette, prim and overbearing one there to torment him as a reminder of their past. But we’re also only experiencing them through Toller’s eyes, so perhaps everything is intentionally skewed.
“First Reformed” is the kind of film that will stay with you long after the credits. It also feels like the ending of at least a certain chapter for Schrader, and will surely be remembered as one of his finest.