OnScreen Review: "First Reformed"

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Can God forgive us?

This is half of a question raised in the film First Reformed, words that linger over everything that transpires in this unique concoction from writer/director Paul Schrader. Schrader is most known for being the screenwriter of some of Martin Scorsese’s biggest films: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. These are provocative films, and First Reformed is also a film that intends to provoke and move the viewer.

Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?

This is the full question that is asked of Ethan Hawke’s Reverand Ernst Toller, the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York on the verge of its 250th anniversary. The man asking him is Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist whose wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks the Reverend to speak to. Given the state of the world, Michael is reluctant to bring a child into it and Mary is 20 weeks pregnant. Their conversation about the environment, humanity, and faith sparks something in Toller, who cannot shake the question posed to him and how it begins to change his behavior. It also coincides with Toller having a bit of an extended dark night of the soul and his decision to keep a journal that he intends to burn after writing in it for a year.

Toller himself is someone who is no stranger to tragedy, having served as a military chaplain like his father and grandfather before him who encouraged his son to follow in the family footsteps, only to be killed in Iraq. This resulted in the dissolution of his marriage as well, him leaving the chaplaincy, and finding himself at First Reformed, which has only a handful of congregants and is known as the museum church owned by a nearby megachurch, Abundant Life, and under the leadership of Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka, Cedric the Entertainer). He also has an awkward and strained relationship with choir director of the megachurch, Esther (Victoria Hill).

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The film is mainly about the slow transformation and/or deterioration of Toller, whom the film reveals as having a physical ailment that slowly comes into focus over the course of the film; an ailment exacerbated by his increasing consumption of alcohol. The film hints at several reasons for his deterioration, but his interaction with Michael and Mary seems to speed up the process, especially in the wake of a tragedy that befalls them and begins to set Toller on a path of self-destruction or worse. There are clear shades of Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle here. Though Toller is far less unhinged than Bickle, there is a definite sense that both are seeing the world around them differently than most around them see the world and the need to restore some kind of order that was lost. If De Niro’s Bickle sees the immorality of sin found in the city that is rotting the core of humanity, Hawke’s Toller is standing under an umbrella in downpour of acid rain increasingly despairing over the immorality of what has been been done to the Earth under our stewardship.

Schrader is somewhat of a Renaissance Man of film, having dabbled in film criticism and literally wrote the book on transcendental filmmaking (Transcendental Style in Film) looking at the works of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer. Ozu and Dreyer are two auteurs that are blind spots for me, but I do have a little exposure to Bresson, and it’s easy to recognize the influence at work here, as well as the inclinations and leaning of Schrader’s prior collaborations with Scorsese. A film that feels like a blending of Taxi Driver and Diary of a Country Priest is not something I was ever expecting to experience in a movie theater, but here we are.

Hawke gives an incredible performance as Toller, a man of faith who you are unsure of whether he is struggling with his faith or beginning to really discover it for the first time. If Hawke’s Toller is the equivalent in some ways to De Niro’s Bickle, then Amanda Seyfried’s Mary is in some respects the counterpart to Jodie Foster’s Iris in Taxi Driver, someone with whom the main character forms a deep, spiritual bond with on some level. Cedric Kyles is someone who, on first thought, would be out of place in a film like this, but he is amazingly effective as the lead pastor of a megachurch. It’s a terrific “against-type” kind of casting.

Toller lives a quiet life with few possessions. His bedroom has a single bed, a desk, his journal, and a bottle. Maybe a throw rug too. His living room is even more sparse in it furnishings, with a single chair. The film, likewise, has an unadorned nature to it. Framed in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the commonplace widescreen format, everything feels more intimate as a result. And the film has one of the most beautiful opening moments of the year, where the film opens with just a few white words on a black backdrop, and ever so slowly the black begins to fade, almost imperceptibly, until the outlines of the First Reformed church begin to become visible, as if seen by the light of the morning dawn.

The corporate villain of the film, Edward Balq, played by Michael Gaston, hinders the film somewhat for me. Balq Industries heavily pollutes the land and also happens to be one of Abundant Life’s biggest benefactors and Balq is personally a driving force behind the 250th anniversary celebration. Gaston is a fine actor whose work I have enjoyed in other places, but the character’s callousness is so over the top and one note in how deplorable it is that I had a hard time believing that he is someone who would be interested in preserving the rich tradition of a church that was a part of the Underground Railroad. The ending of the film also goes to an extreme that may strain credulity for some.

I’m interacting with this First Reformed at an interesting time. I’m co-leading a church small group this summer about movies centered on the book Movies Are Prayers: How Movies Voice Our Deepest Longings by a favorite film critic of mine, Josh Larsen. Whether you agree with the environmental politics being championed by this film or not, whether you buy everything the film is selling as far as the actions some of the characters take or not, whether you are even a person of faith or not, First Reformed is definitely a form of prayer from Schrader. It’s an angry prayer asking if there is any explanation, any hope, and ultimately any forgiveness.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars