In rural Upstate New York, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) administers to a meager flock at First Reformed Church, a historic site that’s now most notable as a tourist attraction—albeit a somewhat rickety one, as evidenced by the fact that its gift shop only boasts T-shirts in small. First Reformed’s 250th anniversary is fast approaching, as is a celebration to commemorate that event being organized by local mega-church Abundant Life, which is run by Toller’s friend Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer). For Toller, however, there’s no joy to be found in such festivities, or for that matter in almost any other aspect of his day-to-day routine. The silence of the Almighty, and the despair it brings, is all-consuming.
Those familiar with the oeuvre of famed screenwriter-turned-director Paul Schrader will quickly recognize Toller as another “God’s Lonely Man,” and First Reformed (in theaters May 18) as equally indebted to the work of Robert Bresson and Schrader’s most famous Martin Scorsese-helmed script—think of it as Diary of a Country Taxi Driver.
Shot in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and devoid of a conventional musical score, it’s an austere examination of devotion, grief, self-loathing and the desperate madness those emotions can inspire in an alienated individual’s heart. Plumbing the depths of its protagonist’s increasingly dire inner life, where the burning desire for communion and salvation slowly breeds resentment and fury, Schrader’s latest is a character study of intense religious and moral weight, and a gripping drama that reconfirms its 71-year-old maker’s status as one of cinema’s most fearsome and titanic talents.
First Reformed is, in certain respects, a distillation of Schrader’s long, illustrious career—aside from the aforementioned kindred spirits, there are potent traces of his The Last Temptation of Christ and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters found here, woven into the fabric of this tormented story about the guilt-ridden Toller. As we slowly learn through conversations with others, Toller has assumed his current post after having renounced his prior position as a military chaplain, which he found untenable after the death of his son, who joined the Army (a family tradition) on his father’s urging and then perished during the war in Iraq. That tragedy cost Toller not only his boy but also his wife. Now, years later, he’s a man of the cloth isolated in the middle of nowhere, and to combat—or, at least, confront—his turmoil, he embarks on a new project: to write honestly in a journal each day for an entire year.
Those handwritten entries function as First Reformed’s narration, which layers the action proper with Toller’s doubts, fears, and frustration with God’s apparent indifference to his suffering. As embodied by a fantastic Hawke, whose placid and polite demeanor always seems poised to crack from the strain of suppressing his roiling feelings, Toller is a preacher in profound crisis. His monotonous, miserable life is upended by the appearance of (symbolically named) congregation member Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who requests that Toller speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental radical who wants Mary to have an abortion in order to spare their unborn child from enduring a future he’s sure will be marked by environmental calamity. In their initial conversation, Toller finds Michael to be a likeminded figure gripped by hopelessness, and the activist’s vision of impending apocalyptic ruin to be in tune with his own malaise—which has also manifested itself physically, via an abdominal pain that’s bloodied Toller’s urine and exacerbated his covert drinking.
Toller’s relationship with Michael isn’t destined to last, and in its aftermath, Mary shows the reverend her discovery—which, not to be spoiled here, operates in classic “Chekhov's Gun” fashion. Before that momentous item can reemerge during the film’s harrowing finale, however, First Reformed commits itself to intimately, and incisively, charting Toller’s gradual disintegration courtesy of his consuming anguish and rage. He soon locates a target for that vehemence in Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the head of a regional energy company that’s polluting the very world Michael sought to save (and which Toller views as akin to the divine made real). Making matters knottier still, Balq is the financial benefactor responsible for First Reformed’s continuing existence, as well as its upcoming anniversary commemoration.
In a heated diner argument, Balq responds to Toller’s denunciation of his business’ anti-environmental conduct by asking if the reverend speaks directly with Christ—thereby pinpointing the egotism underscoring Toller’s despondency. “Will God forgive us?” Hawke’s character repeatedly asks in First Reformed, and it alternately serves as a lamenting question and a fanatical accusation. More pressing for Toller, though, is whether he can forgive himself (or anyone else) for their shortcomings, and come to terms with the fact that the world is an imperfect place devoid of the easy comfort, or opportunities for redemption, he so urgently craves.
In a zoom into Pepto-Bismol curdling in a glass of whiskey, and a pan across a nighttime city block spied out a car window, Schrader visually shouts out to analogous moments in Taxi Driver. Meanwhile, his boxy (and often static) compositions, full of chasm-like spaces and sharply delineated lines, and married to a natural soundscape punctuated by ominous droning, create an atmosphere of oppressive Bressonian severity. Even when the director indulges in a more Mishima-style avant-garde flourish—namely, a sequence in which Mary lies on top of Toller, and the two float over environments that segue from fresh and unspoiled to polluted and corrupted—First Reformed proves a descent into an ever-grimmer abyss devoid of the light, and hope, that dawns in the film’s opening moments.
Some Christian viewers may object to Toller’s practical response to his spiritual melancholy. Yet First Reformed is less a commentary on the contemporary church than it is a dissection of its protagonist’s (and, by extension, its author’s) struggle to reconcile conflicts of faith, emotion and reality. Like all of Schrader’s finest output, it’s at once ascetic and expressionistic, bleak and cautiously optimistic, nuanced and—in the figure of Mary, who like Taxi Driver’s Iris (Jodie Foster) and Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), resonates as a two-dimensional vehicle for a male protagonist’s dreams of deliverance—blunt.
Marked by an arresting performance from Hawke that resonates as an empathetic portrait of a distinctive lost soul, even as it plays like a calm-if-coiled companion piece to Robert De Niro’s iconic cabbie from 42 years ago, Schrader’s film wrestles passionately with issues of the mortal and the divine, ultimately concluding with an oblique abruptness that leaves definitive answers just out of reach.