First Reformed is a film that has been fifty years in the making. Going all the way back to the start of director Paul Schrader’s film criticism career. He wrote a book on spiritual cinema called Transcendental Style In Film that covers the work of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer. Schrader had not seen a film until he was 17, being brought up in a calvinist christian family. It’s the work of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer that are present throughout First Reformed, and lend themselves to Paul Schrader’s austere and emotionally withholding film.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the caretaker of First Reformed Church in upstate New York. A building that has stood since the 1700s, but that is utilized more as a historical museum than a well attended communal space. The historical church is partnered with a mega church called Abundant Life, which casts a shadow as mass entertainment rather than spiritual rock.
After the Sunday service, Toller is approached by a pregnant young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who seeks his counsel for her troubled husband. Michael (Philip Ettinger) is an environmental activist who spends his time obsessively pouring over climate change statistics and constantly worrying about the future of the planet. He wants Mary to have an abortion and he finds it irresponsible and cruel to bring a child into a world that will face mounting environmental and social problems.
Toller addresses his concerns in one of the film’s best scenes occurring not even ten minutes into the start time. He talks of balancing hope and despair at the same time, encouraging Michael to look after his family. While he’s able to hold his own and make the case to hold out hope for a better world, we know how much doubt that Michael has brought out in the Reverend.
Schrader utilizes voice over in a skillful manner so that we can know Toller’s thoughts as he keeps a journal at the start of the film. It’s after his interaction with Michael where he beings to slip into despair himself. We know he lost a son who he encouraged to enlist as he did in the marines, his then wife left him over this, and who’s only solace is his stewardship to the long standing church. He’s a man that before any of the events take place, is in an extraordinary amount of pain.
Schrader, best known for being the screenwriter for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, utilizes a cold, distant, and static filming style that creates a palpable atmosphere. In his own words, First Reformed is a passive aggressive film. That most movies do everything to ask for your attention, in fact they’re begging for it in all kinds of stylistic ways.
First Reformed doesn’t do that, it is almost simultaneously pulling you in and pushing you away. You’re with Toller for a great deal of the film and then you’re not, a shift occurs, a crack that cannot be sealed or gone back over. It is deeply reminiscent of Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle, an updating of sorts that explores extremism and ideology. While Taxi Driver was about the pathology of loneliness, I believe First Reformed to be about the pathology of despair.
The psychology of the single religious man trying to carry the burden of righting humanity’s wrongs are quite rich and full of commentary all on their own. Toller’s almost direct need to punish himself is so obvious and clear that it pains us when we see it, how masochistic his behavior is, it’s heartbreaking.
Toller becomes lost in despair as we move throughout the film, seeing the Earth becoming more and more polluted, with no end in sight. He sees no way to right the ship against computer models that tell him how doomed we all are. All of this is complicated when he finds out that the biggest financial contributors to the Abundant Life mega church are major environmental polluters. The spiritual troubles of Toller are in addition to stomach problems that bring on excessive drinking.
One of the most memorable shots is of the Reverend pouring Pepto Bismol into his Whisky, creating the visual representation of pollution. First Reformed was shot by Alexander Dynan, a young Cinematographer who’s only credit is Schrader’s previous film Dog Eat Dog. His work on this film is exceptional, done in a minimalist style with natural light blowing out the church windows and the contrast of the unlit black spaces inside the church.
There is another exceptional scene that showcases a stark purple sunrise, that is among the most beautiful and cinematic shots ever made. Schrader has said in interviews that Dynan would probably get more work but that he already makes too much money shooting commercials.
First Reformed is a cold, distant, and dark journey with a troubled man trying to find reason and meaning. He sees all the corruption, pollution, and eventual decay of everything around him. It’s a deeply moving, and meaningful look at someone who wants very badly to understand and grasp the chaos and destructive nature of his environment. And in the end, is he saved? Do we see fantasy or reality? It’s a completely ambiguous ending, in a film that does a great job of asking questions and leaving the answers up to the audience.