First Reformed is the culmination of Paul Schrader’s singular career. After close to fifty years in the movie business, Schrader has written and directed his masterpiece. This is not an easy film to categorize: it is personal, political, allegorical, religious, and thrilling all at once. It features Ethan Hawke in his best performance to date. This is film is challenging – some scenes defy explanation – and yet the screenplay is concise and literate. Parts of it are even funny. After you leave the theater, you may be astonished, confused, or angry. No matter what, you will want to talk about what you just watched, but you’ll probably need to sit in contemplative silence beforehand.
The first image is the First Reformed church, located in upstate New York. It looks obscure and serene, at least until the camera pushes on its façade. Shot from the bottom, with the camera pointing upward, the church is now imposing, as if it’s an extension of God’s apocalyptic will. This distorted, uncomfortable image is important for what is to follow, since the opening act is muted and introspective.
Hawke plays Ernst Toller, the pastor of First Reformed. Schrader introduces him through voice-over: we hear the thoughts he writes in a diary, one that he plans to destroy after a year. Toller explains his rules for the diary, but never its purpose. We come to find that he has crisis of faith: the church has few parishioners, with Toller sleepwalking through his sermons. He drinks too much, and ignores what seems like an alarming sickness.
Hawke shaped his persona with “slacker” roles in films like Reality Bites, but there is none of that loose physicality here. As Toller, his performance is tightly controlled, both in terms of how he speaks and how he moves. There is a constant subtext – this is a man on a downward spiral – but Hawke creates a convincing veneer for Toller. The film is about how that veneer erodes, and what Toller does once it is gone.
After sermon one Sunday, a parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to visit with her husband. Toller agrees, meeting with Michael (Philip Ettinger) the following day. Michael is worried about the direction the world is moving: he is an environmental extremist, one who looks at the data and sees the planet’s irrevocable path toward destruction. Schrader films their conversation with a simple shot reverse shot, highlighting the empathy and engagement between Toller and Michael. They genuinely listen to each other, and Toller’s advice is more practical than spiritual. This episode invigorates him – someone really needs his help – yet Michael’s arguments creep into Toller’s mind.
There is another, parallel storyline alongside what happens to Mary and Michael. The church is about to have its 250th anniversary, and preparations are underway for the big celebration. Toller meets with Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who runs the nearby megachurch and is in charge of the festivities. These men are at a polite impasse since they approach their vocation so differently: Jeffers is like God’s cheerleader, to the delight of his congregation, while Toller is a somber intellectual.
Either way, these preparations emasculate Toller: he is relegated to second chair in his own church, as the governor and wealthy donors make all the big decisions. His resentment bleeds together with sympathy for Michael. He starts asking hard questions. Why doesn’t the church care about climate change? What business does the church have with corporate sponsors? There are no easy answers, so Toller finds himself drawn toward more radical ideas.
Paul Schrader is known for his “man in a room” movies. In films like American Gigolo and Taxi Driver, he creates flawed men who, out of profound loneliness, have no alternative but to confront themselves in solitude. First Reformed continues in that tradition, with some imagery taken straight from Taxi Driver, but complicates it through Toller’s position and worldview. He questions his faith, and the nature of faith entirely. His moments of tranquility, which are frequent, are found through alternatives to prayer. The film inflicts all manner of indignity on Toller, until no slight is too big or small. Schrader clearly identifies with his hero and his compulsions, and yet he is shrewd enough to criticize him, too.
As a director, Schrader’s style is exacting and minimalist. His camera rarely moves, and when it does, you can feel it. Many shots are symmetrical, and sometimes in surprising ways: there is a moment where Toller returns to Mary’s home, with the front door on the edge of the frame. It turns out Mary is taking him to the garage, where something sinister awaits them. Despite all the formal elegance, the film’s most memorable scene involves Mary coming into Toller’s home. Schrader films them in a long shot, making them seem small in the living room, and the sequence ends with… I don’t want to spoil it, except to say there is a feeling of transcendence and despair. Schrader has said in interviews that he was inspired by Tarkovsky for the sequence, and while it does not bear a strong semblance in formal terms, there is the same sort of reckoning with the unknown.
I was lucky enough to see First Reformed under strange circumstances. The screening was sponsored by the Motion Picture Association of America, so the event featured politicians, lobbyists, and the organization’s current CEO. He introduced the film, along with Schrader who was also in attendance, except the CEO seemingly had no understanding of Schrader’s work. While most of the crowd was respectful and attentive, others resisted the film; they made their discomfort and disgust audible, and even inspired some walk-outs. The best praise I can give First Reformed is that it makes powerful people feel uncomfortable. It is a drama so exacting, so carefully observed and performed, that it is impossible to deny its power.