First Reformed might as well have been titled Can God Forgive Us? The question is asked by many people and in many ways throughout the film. Ethan Hawke’s character, Reverend Ernst Toller, literally spells out the question on the welcome sign in front of his church as his descent into doubt and madness nears its lowest point. You might think those of us who don’t believe in the existence of any gods, Christian or otherwise, would consider it a pointless question and regard First Reformed as a fruitless filmmaking exercise. While the question might be futile, since there is no verifiable evidence for the existence of a god, First Reformed is a compelling, vital, and spellbinding work of art.
The person behind the picture, legendary film critic, scholar, screenwriter, and director Paul Schrader, was raised in a strict Calvinist household. It was so strict, he had to sneak out of the house at 17 to see his first movie, which he has stated in an interview as being The Absent-Minded Professor. Schrader also recently said that when he embarked on his own filmmaking career, he wasn’t interested in making religious movies. In a seeming act of rebellion against his religious upbringing, he was interested in “sex and violence and profanity and outrageousness — what we’re all interested in in the movies.” After 40 years in filmmaking, First Reformed was his conscious decision to return to his religious roots.
“Conscious” is the key word there. If you have even a passing familiarity with psychology, you have probably heard the term “the return of the repressed.” It’s the idea that when a person buries something uncomfortable or unwanted deep down inside themselves, that same thing tends to bubble up unconsciously in other forms.
So, while Schrader was exploring sex and violence and profanity and outrageousness, his deeply rooted religious concerns found their way into his work, if not always on the surface, then at least as a funky undercurrent. That’s why one of the most interesting, complex, and disturbing characters Schrader ever created – the sick and twisted avenging angel Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver – describes himself as “God’s lonely man.” Bickle is a sort of crazed Christ-figure for our modern world. He is obsessed with the idea that “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” He is “a man who would not take it anymore…a man who stood up.”
Schrader is also the writer who adapted Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ for the screen. That movie tills rich philosophical ground by exploring a Jesus who at times questioned his own divine nature. He wondered if he was actually hearing the voice of God, or if he was just insane. Jesus must defeat his own doubt to become the savior of all mankind when he is faced with the titular last temptation.
While doubt is also at the heart of First Reformed, despair is an even more prominent sentiment. Rev. Toller describes the struggle between hope and despair as the struggle of life itself. He tells this to Michael, one of his parishioners. Michael’s wife, Mary, who is pregnant, asks Rev. Toller to council Michael because she is worried about her husband.
He is an environmental activist who is convinced – with good evidence – that humanity’s reckless behavior concerning climate change has doomed us to extinction within the next 100 years. Michael is so fervent on the subject that he wants Mary to have an abortion because he believes bringing a baby into a world that will be uninhabitable within the child’s lifetime is irresponsible and immoral.
During the first conversation between Rev. Toller and Michael, when Toller is trying to convince Michael that despair is not the answer, we hear the Reverend in voice-over describing his reactions. He says he felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis. Schrader is wrestling with a whole host of ideas here, and he does so with a great amount of intelligence and a stylistic sparseness in the transcendental cinematic tradition.
The director wrote a book on this style, also called Slow Cinema, in 1972 titled Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. His practice of it in First Reformed displays his deep understanding of the technique. It allows him to explore the themes of the picture while pulling us into its hypnotic current.
Slow, meditative dolly shots of the exterior of Rev. Toller’s tiny First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, New York give us time to think about the centuries-old building. We contemplate the odds of its survival in the shadow of Abundant Life megachurch. First Reformed, a historical landmark that was a stop on the Underground Railroad, is celebrating its 250th anniversary. Schrader asks us to think about how money and power conflict with places like First Reformed through the character of Edward Balq. He’s an industrialist who acts as the benefactor to the church through his donations to Abundant Life, which owns the land where First Reformed sits.
Balq, among other things, is in the oil and gas business. He makes it clear that he has no intention of entertaining discussions about climate change when Toller voices concern about the issue in the wake of his conversations with Michael. The businessman ends the conversation with “it’s complicated,” a sentiment with which Schrader clearly disagrees when it comes to climate change, but one that he strives to incorporate into First Reformed as a whole.
In addition to the revelations about climate change that Toller must confront due to his interactions with Michael, the Reverend is also dealing with despair on a much more personal level. His marriage ended after his only son was killed while serving in Iraq. He is also dealing with a stomach illness which his frequent drinking is only aggravating. All these dramatic machinations work as counterpoint to Schrader’s transcendental style. The spare mise-en-scène of a single candle on the bedroom floor as Toller writes in his diary focuses our minds on the ideas Schrader is presenting.
And, much like the protagonists in his earlier films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, Schrader is presenting a man who slips deeper and deeper into despair before attempting a sort of redemption. The act of redemption in First Reformed doesn’t work quite as well as in the earlier films. Mainly that’s because we are in a very different storytelling landscape compared to 40 years ago. Mary, Michael’s wife, plays a key part, and it feels like Schrader included her for no other reason than to be present for the final shot of the movie; she exists to give Toller meaning.
Schrader treats all his themes – our disgraceful stewardship of the earth, the corrosive effect of money and power on society, personal guilt and a desire for redemption – with such earnestness and seriousness, though, that the ending mostly works. If you give yourself over to First Reformed’s rhythm, the movie will transport you to a unique place.
Why it got 4 stars:
- It's probably the worst cliché I could use, but First Reformed is an exceptional return to form for Paul Schrader. He's dealing with themes and subject matter here that you can really tell are close to him. I'm just so glad the last we heard from him wasn't The Canyons, an embarrassing disaster of a movie.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I didn't have a chance to talk about the performances here. Ethan Hawke is very good as Rev. Toller. He makes a decision to "go for it" in the last act, when Toller is really breaking down, that you can see all over his face. It didn't quite convince me, but I respected his commitment. Amanda Seyfried as Mary is also good, but she doesn't have much to do. Cedric Kyles (AKA Cedric the Entertainer) turns up in a small role as Pastor Jeffers, the head of the Abundant Life megachurch. Kyles is good in a mostly dramatic role. I'd like to see him do more. Character actor and "that guy" Michael Gaston plays Edward Balq with so much intensity and quiet menace. He is great in the role.
- Schrader decided to shoot First Reformed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and it's a choice that perfectly fits the aesthetic of the movie. Everything about this movie is sparse, including its framing.
- There is a lamp in Mary's living room that is basically a giant eyeball. It looks on as Mary and Toller pray in one scene. It's a little on the nose (God watching over us), but I liked it. It's such an odd looking lamp. I really appreciated Schrader's use of it.
- Speaking of odd: there is one scene that almost defies explanation. Mary asks Toller to participate in an act of physical intimacy that she and her husband have performed many times. She calls it the "Magical Mystery Tour." I don't want to give anything away, but it leads to a sequence that is mesmerizing and transcendental in the deepest sense of the word.
- The music, which is barely there, by the artist known as Lustmord, is unsettling.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- I saw First Reformed at the iconic Texas Theater. It was a magnificent experience seeing a movie that transports you to such a radically different head-space in a theater that is so unique.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- It might change at the last minute, but as of right now, I'm planning on seeing, Damsel, the new indie western directed by the Zellner brothers. They wrote and directed a movie in 2014 that I saw last year called Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter that's bewildering and beautiful.