In Paul Schrader’s ‘First Reformed,’ we are greeted with a heavy despair and loss of faith through another venture in character study as told through the general perspective of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). The screenwriter behind Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed ‘Taxi Driver,’ with a hefty credit on Scorsese’s ‘Raging Bull,’ brings us his latest directorial effort in yet another depiction of “God’s lonely man.” We’ve seen the austere deterioration of Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’ where a world of sin and unjust things crept into his psyche. Here in ‘First Reformed,’ the influences of modern world environmentalism and spiritual radicalism collide in a message-heavy script. It asks big questions with big intentions, but may come off slightly pretentious toward its end, with the tendency to lose a general audience. Ultimately, there’s some stellar composition of ideologies to think on, a dreadful spiral akin to ‘Taxi Driver,’ and a steely career performance by Hawke to admire here. An ‘arthouse Taxi Driver’? Sure, but not nearly as masterful.
Toller works the service and tours at a small church in upstate New York, what was once a historical stop through the Abolitionist Movement. He’s experienced his own worst times since his son died in Afghanistan, his wife divorced him, and his health is seemingly in decline. The only line of hope is the funding and support he receives from the local megachurch ran by Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). One day, he meets with one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), in the hope that he’ll find time to speak with her environmental activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). The film begins its effect on Toller’s faith as Michael admits that he doesn’t wish for the baby they’re expecting to be born into such a damaged world. He confesses his disbelief of any good in all of society, sitting across Toller, with all of his pinned research and climate radars on the laptop behind him. Ettinger, for the time he has onscreen, is vulnerable as Michael, worrisome, visibly unstable and uncertain in regards to his future. He looks sickly as the manifestation of his radical intentions overrule. With this in mind, Toller feels it is now his duty to council Michael, not expecting what follows to be his breaking point.
Schrader’s religious background is evident in the translation from literary forms to the cold, cruel narrative that fuels ‘First Reformed.’ He’s infused it with a callback to the 1951 French film ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ directed by Robert Bresson, in which an outsider priest is unwelcome, criticised, blamed for unfortunate events, and crippled into devastation. Although not entirely original in its conception, ‘First Reformed’ nonetheless offers us the tragic story of defeated hope and how climate, environmental or political, can echo through our own morality. Its isolating scenes carefully keep us close by Toller and his walk on a thin rope.
Hawke taps into an otherworldly side of his acting that showcases a reversal in faith within his character. It’s up to perspective whether Toller truly is within his character to derail so abruptly. His demeanor is secretive and felt as an obligation to both Michael and to the world so many people leave behind. “Can God ever forgive us?” he asks Reverend Jeffers, a very convincing and supportive turn by Cedric Kyles. It’s deep within Toller’s own shortcomings in life that have paved the tenacity for his disarmament. He has an illness he tries to ignore by simply downing more scotch, maybe with a dash of Pepto Bismol. We come to know of his past affair with Esther (Victoria Hill), who works at Jeffer’s fancy Abundant Life church. Toller begins to push her and everyone else aside as he tries to understand God’s answers and just how agonizing the world has truly become.
As mentioned earlier, it is no ‘Taxi Driver,’ but Paul Schrader’s ‘First Reformed’ is a heavy story with loads to unpack, maybe even daring to ask us about the state of the world’s quiet disasters. It doesn’t give us anything quite new, but the journey into despair is engaging enough. Its morbid curiosity for the downfall of man plays well and you can tell Schrader is confident in his work, even in its most divisive moments.
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston