First Reformed review
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a brutally honest personal expression of despair. A powerful worldly outcry taps into the hopelessness of the pressing environmental crisis. First Reformed unmasks the raging hypocrisy, corporate gluttony and shady morality that has left us on the ravines of extinction. Schrader’s remarkable feat here is to channel these existential themes into an intimate tale of loneliness and depression. It’s a fable of man being plundered by political/planetary sins while battling with the demons of grief and depression. The very concept of losing one’s faith is explored here by Schrader who asks challenging spiritual questions. There are vibes of his own Taxi Driver screenplay, the ambition of Mallick’s transcendent Tree of Life and the beauty of Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men. As time has passed, these musings have evolved and continue to resonate strongly. This marks a tipping point in my relationship with film.
Reverend Ernst Toller (the tremendous Ethan Hawke) is the pastor at the historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York. The church has links back to the underground railroad and has faded to become a tourist attraction together with its own souvenir shop. The relic is on the brink of celebrating its 250th anniversary which Toller must organise together with well-funded parent church, Abundant Life. In the run up to the event, it’s almost a twist of fate when pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) calls on him to counsel her anxious husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger).
The sessions with Michael are revelatory and open up a void that had been locked shut. We are the conduit, listening intently as Toller reveals his helplessness in a personal diary as he wrestles in trying to counsel the young man suffering with severe anxiety: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”. Here, we are faced with a plethora of facts on climate change; these truisms emerge from the mind of a man faced with an internal dilemma, how can you bring another life into a planet that is destined for destruction? Hawke and Ettinger are superb in these interactions. They are the very best First Reformed has to offer. The planetary discourse infuses with Toller’s deep personal struggles and losses. He’s a man open to help others but has closed himself off to any concern as Jeffers puts it “Even a pastor needs a pastor”.
Battles with alcoholism, illness and an insular existence after tragedy, Toller is a lost soul who yearns for meaning. He finds it in his interactions with Mary and the growing sense of injustice that builds through Schrader’s purposeful narrative. Images of our impacts of the environment are burnt into the mind: air and water pollution, landfill sites neglected are just some of the visible reminders of this cosmic battle cry. The divergence of religious scripture and a grim capitalist thriller strike a chord that is particularly beaten in today’s troubling times. As lines blur between what Toller sees and what we do, it ensures the ending is left to ponder over. This is my film of the year by some distance.