Paul Schrader first came into prominence with the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There are shades of Taxi Driver in Schrader’s latest. The protagonist of First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), lives a mostly solitary life as the pastor of a small church—funded by a larger televangelist church—in Snowbridge, New York. He has begun a test of self by setting out to write a journal of his thoughts for 12 months.
We hear journal entries in voiceover, as we hear Travis Bickle’s increasingly violent thoughts in Taxi Driver. Both characters share a repressed, self-oppressive mental state that becomes challenged by the apparent turmoil of the world around them.
In the case of Toller, this challenge comes in the form of Michael (Philip Ettinger), the husband of one of Toller’s church patrons, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Michael, an ardent environmental activist, is conflicted about bringing a child into the degrading natural world. As such, he urges Mary to have an abortion. Mary enlists Toller’s help in reasoning with Michael.
Toller’s conversation with Michael, and subsequent events surrounding the man, spark a change in the pastor. It is a change that suffers from an increasing urgency—perhaps too rapid and radical for what it stems from, given that topics like climate change could not possibly be new to Toller—but it is a fascinatingly complicated change nonetheless.
Toller is a character of intensity. Quiet and reserved as he is, putting on the exterior of a hardened man of faith, his eyes brim over with emotion. There is a fiery undercurrent that becomes harder for him to stave off. As the struggle balloons into something psychologically dangerous, Toller becomes a contradiction that he cannot reconcile.
When he begins his journal, he writes: “When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy.” As a crisis of faith befalls him, these words become forgotten, hollow words, literally erased from Toller’s mind. Yet he is aware of his crisis, more or less. “Discernment intersects with Christian life at every moment,” he writes. His entire life is dictated by a constant struggle of choice. Choosing to live removed from the troubles, or choosing the full emotional capacity of hope, even if that means potentially sacrificing the sanctity of religion.
In its most basic summation, First Reformed is a film about crisis of faith in a world that can no longer fully comprehend faith. Hope and despair are both necessary components of a life fully realized, and balancing these two poles is harder than ever in our current world.
With this reading, the politicization of the film reads entirely too overt. Part of the weight bearing down on Toller is the seeming certainty of ecological disaster on the horizon. Again, it is something that even a religious man would be aware of, whether he believes in the science or not. The only time when Schrader’s script falters is when it puts the political calling cards in Toller’s mouth, when Toller exclaims in exasperation that global warming is a concept agreed upon by 97% of scientists.
That this would be enough to drive the change Toller experiences, particularly given the length to which this change extends, seems somewhat silly for a film that is so beautifully restrained in other parts.
But I think what the politicization does to Toller as a character is more pertinent to the film than what those political statements mean for society writ large. The radicalization of ideas is rendered disturbing in this film, given that we are privy to the entire process. There is a disease of consciousness that pervades the film from all sides.
Toller is our conduit into the disturbing process of self-destruction at the hands of this consciousness. We see his eyes opened to one line of thinking, and this synchronizes with the closing of another. His character arc at first reads as a linear progression, but there is also a linear regression that mirrors this arc.
The depth that this provides Toller’s character is beautifully complex. It feels impossible, at least to me, to fathom these depths with just one viewing. The film is truly written with the unparalleled poignancy of a master. Schrader layers each line of Toller’s journal with weight and subtext. It is cryptic yet telling at the same time, if not more so the former.
And this character, as profoundly drawn as he is by Schrader’s pen, would not work on screen were it not for Hawke. He gives the greatest performance of his career, by a long shot. He is able to deliver the soft-spoken dialogue without ever abandoning the character’s immense internal struggle. Perhaps the final scene, where the internal meets the external, is where the performance begins to break down. But by this point Hawke has brought so much understatement to the role that it feels somewhat like a catharsis to see the struggle come surface level.
First Reformed is something special. On paper, the text reads as a rather simplistic tale of spirituality challenged. But the subtext holds a rattling character study of salvation in peril, hope in flux, the mental and physical cost of self flagellation, and probably many other things. It won’t be the same thing to all people, but it is undoubtedly a film whose intensity and psychological weight are palpable, unshakable entities.
First Reformed: A-
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews
Check out my page on Letterboxd
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)