Harrowing, but with a wry humor, and utterly transporting, Paul Schrader has synthesized his complex religious upbringing with modern anxieties into a trenchant portrait of tormented souls in “First Reformed.”
The title is the name of the church in the film, a modest but stately structure in upstate New York that’s nearing its 250th anniversary. First Reformed is led by the Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man in his late 40s who drinks too much and cares for himself too little and who has promised to tell the honest truth of himself in a handwritten diary for one year. He’ll burn it after the experiment is over.
Toller spends his nights alone with a bottle of whiskey and his thoughts and writing, which we access through voiceover. His days aren’t much different, and he barely even gets respite from his own mind while giving sermons. First Reformed seems to only have about five parishioners; most of the town belongs to the mega-church Abundant Life.
Thus it must come as a sort of relief to get an opportunity to work with the people he’s there to serve when one day Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to speak with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is a radical environmentalist so certain of the earth’s imminent destruction that he’d rather terminate his wife’s pregnancy than bring a child into a decaying world.
Toller’s sincere efforts to help nonetheless lead to an event that sends him down very different path in the lead up to the 250th anniversary celebration. He begins to question his own faith and belief in hope and the future as it relates to what humans are doing to the earth and the systems around him that preach righteousness while enabling polluters and taking their cash in the process.
He has his own ghosts to contend with, and personal demons, and we get an up close look at a man’s spiral — whether it’s to elevated consciousness or paranoid insanity is a question that Schrader lets hang.
As Toller, Hawke delivers one the best performances of his career. He carries the film and all its complex ideas on his shoulders, a burden that visibly wears on him as the story progresses and as he becomes more alienated.
If there are weak spots, it is perhaps in the writing of the women who seem to be more symbols than characters. But we’re also experiencing them through Toller’s eyes, so perhaps everything is intentionally skewed.
“First Reformed” will stay with you long after the credits. Whether it’s a swansong for the prolific screenwriter and director, it certainly feels like the ending of at least a certain chapter that will surely be remembered as one of Schrader’s finest.
Rated R for some disturbing violent images.
Time: 1:48 minutes.