First Reformed screened as a “Festival Favorite at SXSW. Paul Schrader’s film presents conundrum after conundrum, slippery slope after slippery slope. This drama as a twisting, stark thriller strikes at the heart of our questions about purpose, consequence and soul strength. When one has nothing to live for, does redemption come through self-destruction? What better way than to end the plague of flawed, broken, human nature? Director/writer Paul Schrader posits philosophical questions through the evolution of his protagonist, a failed reverend. And he offers an interpretative ending that only the viewer can divine for themselves.
Schrader’s opening one-shot moves slowly from the faraway to a close up of a 250-year-old historic, renowned, Dutch-reformed church in upstate New York. The white clapboard First Reformed appears to be a bastion of Christianity. Immediately, the careful camera work alerts the audience to pay attention to details. Though it appears nothing occurs, the action is within. It strikes the viewer’s mind and soul sparked by the inner conflicts in the life of the protagonist.
Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke gives a searing, authentic portrayal), leads this small church adjacent to its well-attended, rousing, black, sister church Abundant Life. Toller fronts his way believing his own sincerity as a pastor. And he wears the stark black and white outfit of the cleric throughout most of the film. Indeed, in his representation of himself and his approach toward God, all remains black and white on the surface. Thus, initially, from Toller’s outward demeanor, everything seems well. But Schrader torments the audience and misleads them about much in this film. Cedric the Entertainer as prototypical Evangelical Pastor Cedric Kyles excepted.
Toller “keeps up appearances,” until Schrader gradually unveils Toller’s canard. Indeed, the outfit helps him function, grounds him in the outward manifestation of reality. The symbolic church has a dignity and grace of its own, for it was once a stop on the underground railroad. Wearing the cloth of the divine, he preaches and gains some small token of solace. Yet, in the nether regions of his soul, expressed in his journal through the filter of alcohol, he lives in the grey areas. All remains an intellectually, philosophically, opaque status quo. Then a trigger explodes his complacent acceptance of his plight as a human being.
The catalyst, congregant Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental zealot and Mary’s husband clarifies Toller for us as they meet for a consultation. In fear Mary (Amanda Seyfried’s convincing portrayal melds sweet inner strength and iron will), sends her husband to Toller. Michael questions the sanity of bringing a child onto a climate doomed planet, into genocidal society of oblivion. The pastor’s magnificently eloquent rationale and commentary seem to help Michael. Toller’s faith appears the equivalent of a Christian apologist’s. Its solid foundation in scripture takes our breath away. Schrader’s exceptional dialogue in the interplay between Michael and Toller elevates us.
But toward where? The oblivion Michael runs from, or hope to continue his activism? Though Michael may not be convinced in this one sitting, perhaps he will not continue to insist Mary abort the child she carries. When Toller meets Mary, their conversation encourages him. But misery lurks under the surface and conflicts his soul.
Michael’s questions stir Toller. During his encounters with Michael and Mary, Toller reveals his divorce, his devastation at his son’s death. Coming from a military family, Toller encouraged his son to sign up. When he is killed in combat, his guilt rages. His marriage crumbles. Helped by Reverend Kyles, he finds some purpose in preaching at First Reformed.
Though the underlying reasons don’t manifest, most probably he realizes the ultimate futility of losing his son who fights a war for corrupt reasons. The idea of a military career and his family’s history and his own is stoked in lies. His pastorate at First Reformed and his friendship with Reverend Kyles balances him in the status quo. But Michael and Mary upend it.
The more he speaks with both, the greater his crisis of faith becomes until it moves beyond crisis. Arranging to meet with Michael in a beautiful park/forest, Toller believes his discussions with Michael have made an impact. They have. Michael commits suicide. Schrader’s revelation of this act stuns with the effect the filmmaker intends. Toller must pick up the pieces for Mary. But what of his own soul annihilation?
Concurrently, the establishment of The First Reformed has an upcoming 250-year celebration that Toller and Reverend Kyles prepare for. The celebration will take place in the historic church and will be videotaped for the Abundant Life congregation in their church. To pay for this, Reverend Kyles accepts a hefty donation from an anti-environmentalist corporate. Toller cannot sway him from this because money talks louder than eloquence than faith-filled words than hope. And Toller’s ability to believe at this point is swamped by his soul’s abyss. Thus, his argument would lack power.
However, hope does appear as Toller attempts to comfort Mary. In a magical realism dream sequence which suggests the spiritual realm of consciousness (you will have to see the film), Mary and Toller float above the hell of this world. Their material selves/souls move into the ethers. Have they achieved a union beyond even intellect? Does such a state of being exist? Schrader provides this beauty. And considering the incredible stakes of personal development involved, it becomes the turning point which leaps out and defies our rationality.
However, not for long. Michael had intended an act of violence on others. But Mary left the jacket and explosives with Toller. Thus, Toller considers his life and his purpose. He weighs this against the hypocrisy of the donation from one who represents the anti-environmentalist corporate power structure. The donation makes a mockery of the symbolism of the church and its hallowed history. Indeed, forever, the donation will indemnify the First Reformed in a devil’s compromise.
By selecting the subject of environmental activism and the polluting corporate donor, Schrader’s themes scream out for us today. The Christian tenets have not even penetrated to the souls of the materialistic corporate wealthy who profess Christianity. Unchecked, using their non-profit donations, the polluting corporates have white-washed their way into the sheepfold. They have hypocritically used their fake Christianity to devastate the planet and repeatedly harm its global citizens. And fellow congregants have not held them to account. The blind lead the blind and they all fall in the ditch.
But this is nothing new. In the past, the wealthy paid indulgences to the church to whitewash their sins and become clean to commit more crimes. Meanwhile, the poor went straight to damnation, materially, most probably not spiritually if one believes scripture. Michael who grieves for the planet, unable to live with his own hypocrisy does the only thing in his power that he can do. He sets an example. The sincerity and faith of Michael’s act, full of meaning and sacrifice touches Toller’s heart. With a renewed sense of purpose and being, with one act Toller can hold accountable a representative of the power structure and regain his lost soul.
Schrader has fashioned an incredible film and chosen the superb Hawke as the self-damned reverend who moves from being a two-fold child of hell to a more glorious state. But the ambiguous ending Schrader allows us to decide. In that First Reformed is just great. Uncertainty is one of the more stable principles of life. Schrader’s First Reformed allows uncertainty to steer its genius.
From themes to symbolism to philosophical, existential questions to personal revelation, First Reformed shines as Schrader’s masterwork. The film runs a hard, bumpy road with little asylum along the way. The better for thoughtful Schrader fans. For those curious who enjoy the thrilling dark side, why not? Schrader suggests in much of his work (i.e.Taxi Driver), that the profundity of one’s soul lies at the tip of their fingers. It just requires looking.
Indeed, Schrader takes us there because he has gone there himself. And he still grapples with elements of paradox and contradiction, of light and dark, of death and life. All of these are beautifully represented in the cinematography, the film’s stark colors, the winterscape, the emptiness of the interiors. Also, represented are the differences between the churches, one thriving and growing its light, the other dying. Crucial to these dualities is how hope and/or faith may or may not bridge the sufferings that come with being human.
First Reformed distributed by A24 will move into wide release 22 June 2018. Don’t miss it.