First Reformed (2017)
Written & Directed by Paul Schrader
Reverend Ernst Toller is dying. He doesn’t know what is killing him yet, but he knows he only has a short time to live. He is the head of The First Reformed Church in upstate New York, which has become a tourist attraction because of its pre-Revolutionary construction and role in the Underground Railroad. The only thing keeping First Reformed afloat is the megachurch Abundant Life, headed by Pastor Jeffers. After a service, Toller is approached by Mary, a young pregnant woman who is worried about her husband, Michael. Michael is a radical environmentalist who is falling into darkness over what he sees is the inevitable destruction of the planet. Toller is spun into a crisis of faith after speaking with Michael, trying to grapple with the actions of the system that keeps his church operating and what is being done to God’s creation.
First Reformed surprised me in that it’s a film about faith and doubt. In the same way, Bo Burnham used the setting of middle school to talk about anxiety; Paul Schrader uses the context of a church in upstate New York to discuss themes of faith. The movie can get very didactic when it comes to addressing environmentalism, but it never reached levels of preachiness that were grating in my opinion. Toller and Michael have a captivating scene in the first act where each of them lays out their points of view on the collapse of humanity and the planet.
Typically I am not too fond of a voice-over in films, and it is often used as a narrative crutch when a filmmaker or studio doesn’t feel confident in the storytelling of a picture. However, the voice over (readings from Toller’s daily journal) works because it is an internal thought process after the fact that informs the audience of how Toller has come to feel about the events of the day. The viewer gets to hear these thoughts while the situation is taking place, so it recontextualizes what is happening in front of us. The best example is the exchange between Toller and Michael where the Reverend appears to be distraught with what Michael is telling him. The voice-over reveals that Toller feels exhilarated by their debate, referring to Jacob wrestling with the angel. Toller has a rebellious nature that simmers and never truly comes to fruition in the film, but we see him staring over the edge and into oblivion by the conclusion.
While filmmaker Paul Schraeder has had deep ebbs and flows in his career, but this film recaptures much of what Taxi Driver such a compelling piece of cinema. Schrader is remarkably good at deep diving into the psyche of a single troubled person. I wouldn’t argue that First Reformed is as good as Taxi Driver, but it is a film that exists very close to the older movie. Ethan Hawke, an actor I have never really engaged with, is profoundly riveting as Toller and I see how Hawke has aged into a new period of his acting career, a period I welcome.
First Reformed is a movie about the end of the world on both a literal and personal perspective. The film is very uncomfortable in many moments and not a smooth piece of art to digest. It doesn’t follow a typical act structure, and it deals with contemporary moods without directly referencing political parties or figures. The environmental crisis should be a politically neutral issue, and Toller’s struggle with adhering to authority while hearing the words of his God becomes fascinating viewing.