Paul Schrader’s First Reformed uses potent images and an exceptionally crafted protagonist – found in Ethan Hawke’s lonely Reverend Ernst Toller – to find a bleak balance between hope and despair.
Reverend Toller, a former military chaplain, has much cause to be miserable. His marriage collapsed after the couple’s son died serving in the Iraq War; he wouldn’t have enlisted in the Armed Forces if it was not for the encouragement of his father. Toller’s life is now fully invested in the First Reformed Church, which has embarrassingly been dubbed ‘The Souvenir Shop’ – a small tourist attraction rather than a house of God. Such grievances push Toller to drink, despite his doctor’s advice not to in the wake of a possible stomach cancer diagnosis. Despite plenty grievances Toller’s faith in God remains intact.
This is until he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist. The pair are expecting a child, and Mary encourages Michael to seek Reverend Toller’s advice when she becomes aware that Michael would rather Mary have an abortion than bring up a child in a world ravaged by the selfishness of humankind. Michael unloads grim facts about the reality of climate change in his meeting with Toller and it is clear that his apocalyptic words speak to the reverend’s core.
Toller’s internal conflict intensifies when he learns of the hypocrisy that one of the world’s largest polluters is also a significant donor to local church activity, and thus holds substantial influence. When the reverend brings up climate change with a peer, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) brushes it aside and argues that it is quite possibly God’s intention to allow for the destruction of the Earth, just as He did in Genesis. Toller is also told that the upcoming 250th anniversary celebration of the First Reformed Church should be void of any and all politics. But this doesn’t put Toller’s thoughts to rest.
First Reformed, with its square-like aspect ratio and minimal set dressing, is appropriately shot to capture the bleak mindset of its protagonist. It is simple yet effective filmmaking. Scarlet blood across bright snow. A funeral service held at a toxic waste dump. Such graphic scenes are amplified when interspersed between largely undecorated sets. In an unexpected computer-generated sequence – presented as a religious experience of sorts – Toller is shown the beauty of our planet, but also the harsh realities of industry and pollution; his inner conflict visually imagined.
An analysis of this film would be lost without drawing attention to Ethan Hawke’s nuanced and committed portrayal of Reverend Toller. Although Hawke is by no means done, his work here will certainly be considered a career-best in an already outstanding filmography.
First Reformed is almost perfectly conceived and executed. The tail end of the film begins to lose its grip in the world and characters it has spent 100 minutes exploring, and so the final moments feature jarring scenes that don’t sit well enough into the established narrative.
But nothing is perfect. So, First Reformed is still very much worth your time.