Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is slow, churchy, cerebral, bleak, difficult, tormented and puzzling, which is always a blow. So exhausting when a film’s meaning isn’t laid out clearly and neatly before you. But it is, at least, powerfully puzzling and grippingly puzzling. You may not understand it (completely), but you will come away with the feeling that something was being said, whatever that something may have been.
Ethan Hawke stars as the Revd Ernst Toller, leader of First Reformed Church somewhere in upstate New York. The church, which dates from 1767, is built in the Dutch style, and is white and clapboard, pretty as a picture. But right from our first sight of Toller we understand that he is a darker proposition, and is suffering in some way. (This is conveyed almost entirely by Hawke’s extraordinary internal performance.)
The church has almost no congregation — it’s on the tourist trail and is essentiallya souvenir shop these days — but one parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), does seek him out for advice. She’s pregnant but her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, does not wish to bringa child into this world, and wants her to abort. Toller was married once, but it all fell apart when his son, who joined the military at his father’s urging — Toller had been a military chaplain — was killed in Iraq. Toller counsels the husband, quietly saying: ‘The despair of bringing a child into the world cannot match the despair of taking a child from it.’ But Michael remains unconvinced. He asks Toller plainly: can God ever forgive us? For what we have done to the planet? Toller says the right words in response, but it may be that he doesn’t believe them.
Schrader, who also directs, wrote Taxi Driver and, like Travis Bickle, you sense Toller’s desperate need to make some kind of connection, particularly as his connection with God is failing. He struggles to pray meaningfully. He is lonely. He is depressed. He tries to fix his problems by drinking, writing a tortured journal, ignoring his physical health problems but not going to John Lewis to buy new towels, which always cheers me up, I have to say. Can Mary provide the connection he seeks? What is the significance of this pregnant Mary? What is the significance of Toller’s son having been called Joseph? Is there a Jesus here? There are never any clear answers. Exhaustingly.
This is not a plot-driven film, as it’s about a state of mind, rather than moving people from here to there. But, that said, in the run-up to celebrating the church’s 250th anniversary, there is increasing tension between Toller and Pastor Jeffers (played by Cedric the Entertainer, who is very famous in America; wonderful). Jeffers is leader of Abundant Life, the nearby big business-funded megachurch that keeps First Reformed afloat. As Toller starts identifying with Michael’s point of view, Jeffers perceives him as a loose cannon, which is what he becomes, essentially.
The film touches on faith (a crisis of), greed, hypocrisy and religion getting into bed with capitalism, as well as the environmental issues, which are, perhaps, the least well handled, as they are handled in a rather simplistic way. The third act also veers towards the hysterical, with a levitation scene that is both exceedingly weird and strangely out of step, and also an ending that is as shockingly bizarre (it involves Drano and barbed wire) as it is shockingly abrupt. But Hawke’s performance keeps you with the character, and you won’t be able to look away, just as you won’t be able to escape the feeling that something is hammering away beneath the surface, whatever that something may be.