by Ken Bakely
The sermons delivered by Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) are perfunctory, listless, and interrupted by coughing and other indications of his quickly declining health. His condition is symbolic of the church he preaches in. A First Reformed church in upstate New York, it’s almost 250 years old and a famed historical site in its own right, but lacks any contemporary signs of life; weekly attendance has dwindled to roughly a dozen worshippers. Everyone else has gravitated to Abundant Life, the energetic, boisterous megachurch nearby that pays the smaller church’s bills, while Toller keeps things going during the week by giving museum-style tours of First Reformed to passing tourists and selling souvenirs at the end.
It’s not where he wanted to be, of course, but the road to this point has left him without options. He and his wife Esther (Victoria Hill) divorced after their son, a soldier, was killed in Iraq. Fulfilling a long tradition of military service in his family, Toller had not only pushed the boy to enlist in the first place, but was himself serving as a military chaplain at the time of his son’s death. Shaken by his perceived responsibility for the loss, Toller fell to pieces, giving way to the shell of the man he is now. Though his belief in God remains unquestioned, his detachment is now flat-out depression, and he’s driven to alcoholism. His regular chats with Abundant Life’s business-savvy pastor, Reverend Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), are quite distant, and as First Reformed’s high-profile 250th anniversary celebration draws near, further personal struggles arise.
This is the foundation of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. It’s been noted that the film stands in stark contrast to many recent movies about religion, in that where they use faith as a marketing buzzword, Schrader deconstructs the concept in an elemental way. Indeed, he’s made one of the most pensive and unsparing films about faith in quite some time. Not only focusing on the religious connotations of the word, he broadens his scope to piercing doubt in humanity’s future on Earth itself. Toller is called to counsel Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant woman. Her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), is a staunch environmental activist whose worldview has taken a turn for the deeply nihilistic. With climate change in a state of exponential worsening, he believes that bringing a child into this chaos is ethically indefensible. Toller’s discussions with him are as much an impression of hope onto the other man as they are unto himself, and neither seem to work.
Instead, Toller also becomes dismayed with the planet’s fate, complicated by the fact that Abundant Life – and by extension First Reformed – has a friendly financial relationship with a nearby corporation known for its status as a serial polluter, and whose CEO (Michael Gaston) is an ardent climate change denier. It’s this morally bereft union of capitalism, spirituality, and environmental disregard from which First Reformed draws its thoughtful subtexts, as its main character falls ever deeper into a spiral of despair. He’s consumed by doubt in a world that views uncertainty as weak (or, in the case of an overheard sermon snippet from Jeffers, outright wicked). He questions the ramifications of what humans have done to the planet, and even more than the consequences of global living conditions, if God can forgive humanity for such encompassing misdeeds.
First Reformed doesn’t take any easy paths or invoke neat resolutions to such theological debates, though it’s never lacking in thematic clarity. Schrader’s influences – which range from several other films, like Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest; to his own stated fears over climate change; to his upbringing in a strict Calvinist household – are on display in full force, and in retrospect, you can separately identify them with the same aplomb with which they so intensely come together in the film itself. Even the ending, with its quasi-surrealist bent, is unambiguous in its intended aberration from the locked-down style which marks the rest of the production. As Toller feels increasingly helpless against the vast corruptions of human society, his mental undoing is as graphic as the corporeality of his illness-induced physical degradation, complete with bleeding and vomiting. He preaches in a largely empty sanctuary, with many unfilled pews and their blinding white paint reflecting blankness back at him.
Even outside, nothing seems right. In one scene, he wanders through landfills with pollution pouring out of smokestacks from the enormous factories behind him; all the while, dusk falls with an eerie violet glow. It’s the most color-drenched scene in the movie, but Alexander Dynan’s masterfully clean, Academy ratio cinematography holds firm in its emulation of a dismal soul in crisis. First Reformed doesn’t particularly want us to empathize with Toller, but rather to contemplate the nature of his suffering. Hawke goes a long way in making the character so vividly realized. He doesn’t invite hysterics in his mannerisms, and even the character’s most radical thoughts and actions later on in the film come from a place of thoroughly delineated philosophical battles. Many comparisons have been drawn between Toller and Travis Bickle, one of Schrader’s most famous creations, but there’s something unique in how Toller keeps seeking obvious penance for his increasing disdain for the world. When compared to Seyfried’s Mary, representing purity right down to her name, he becomes all the more desperate to protect her and her unborn child, in the hope that it will save some spark of something within him.
Or maybe he knows he is too far gone to pull himself back, and holds out that faith for the future in the external sense: that after him, and despite the bleak visions of humanity’s decisions, there will still be new life within it. Schrader has made a great meditation on the correspondence of faith and its affectations, allowing viewers to cast their own perspectives onto the screen, and most critically, have them reflected back in reframed visions. In essence, Toller does what he does because he can’t bear the thought of doing nothing. Towards the end, when a worried Jeffers tells him that he’s always “In the garden… sweating drops of blood,” the comment is taken by its recipient as a refusal to engage with faith on a ground level, and it leads to a fantastic debate – with excellent work from Hawke and Kyles – which demonstrates the depths of Schrader’s comfort with letting even the strongest moments play out with austerity, as the camera remains steady in every angle.
Similarly, every piece of music in the film, right up to the ambient dirge over the end credits, follows this aesthetic command. A number of hymns are performed, all with steady deliberation. Two symbolism-heavy choices played over the film’s stunning, transcendent finale – “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” – are typically uptempo pieces, used here with a pared-down bent. Their lyrics are as confident in spirit and resolve as any religious song is, and the irony of their use is how they support, respectively, both an extreme, visceral act and its deeply introspective aftermath. The existential dread that creeps throughout the film reaches a stunning catharsis here, the product of Schrader’s painstaking efforts to track Toller’s mental state with great detail. He keeps us squarely within the character’s disturbed mind throughout each choice. It’s the culmination of a complex, deeply discomforting arc, and its vivid closing haunts me in ways that, well over a day after watching First Reformed, I can’t even begin to shake.