In the midst of a summer movie season populated with the biggest and loudest blockbusters Hollywood has to offer, an unlikely hero has come to the rescue. I’m talking of course about Paul Schrader, whose latest journey through the psyche of a disturbed man, First Reformed, has been opening in more and more cities around the country. The prolific writer/director made a name for himself in the ’70s and ’80s by penning a number of bona fide classics for Martin Scorsese including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, while also directing a number of critical darlings and cult favorites of his own that never quite permeated the mainstream in the same way. Now, the 71-year-old filmmaker has returned with his most acclaimed film in years that also may prove to be his most inscrutable—First Reformed is about a crisis of faith, extremism, and climate change, and it’s nowhere near as incoherent as these descriptors may suggest. Part of the miracle of Schrader’s film is the way it manages to establish these disparate, weighty ideas while still having them inform one another, so too create a delightfully perplexing work of austere indignation.
The plot begins and ends in a small, snowy town in upstate New York that houses the titular First Reformed Protestant Church. The reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the forlorn pastor and de facto caretaker of the historic establishment nearing its 250th anniversary, even as the congregation seems to grow smaller each and every day. Lacking conviction, the reverend spends his days writing sermons that no one will hear and his nights alone in his shadowy bedroom, drink in hand, transcribing his innermost thoughts and fears into a diary—the audience hears his writing in voiceover. As was the case with Taxi Driver, this narrative device works because it isn’t a crutch for delivering expository information, but rather a disturbed character’s inner monologue that is meant to be scrutinized. The film’s muted visuals further emphasize the reverend’s alienation. Shot in the old Academy ratio, the still images resemble oil paintings, and long, lingering shots of the empty church and the surrounding desolate landscape effectively emphasize Toller’s emotional and physical alienation.
After a church service one morning, a parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Toller, informing him of her husband’s psychological distress before asking the priest to speak to him. Promptly the following day, Toller visits the couple’s home and has a lengthy conversation with Michael (Philip Ettinger) about his environmental activism and his debilitating fear that climate change has irrevocably destroyed the planet—“Opportunistic diseases, anarchy, martial law … you will live to see this,” he says. This spout of disconcerting nihilism becomes all the more troublesome when it is revealed that Mary’s pregnant and Michael can’t fathom bringing a child into this fallen world. Undoubtedly concerned for the couple, the reverend agrees to help them through their struggle, but he also becomes strangely engrossed in Michael’s apocalyptic rhetoric.
The lonely priest takes it upon himself to learn more about climate change, and things aren’t looking good for the earth. Feelings of isolation bring about feelings of powerlessness in the face of ecological catastrophe, and Toller—clinically depressed, at this point—begins to question everything: his vocation, his faith, his passivity, and humanity in general. He wonders how humans could carelessly destroy their own planet, as he drinks himself into oblivion. For Schrader, activism is an act of self-preservation—Toller’s concern that humans will destroy the planet clearly reflects a similar fear about his own self-destructive drinking habit. Nonetheless, the film chronicles his stirring transformation from a meek creature of habit into the living embodiment of righteous anger—the lowly priest soon wields his indignation when he contemplates committing an act of environmental extremism.
If it wasn’t already clear, Schrader is far more concerned with Toller’s psychology than he is with the environment, climate change, or fossil fuels. These political issues are surely important, but the film is more interested in what compels a person to commit an act of violence. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once called Schrader’s politics “confused,” and that may very well be true, but this accusation is far from derogatory in my mind. First Reformed often feels overwhelmingly powerful, in part because it invites us to soak in Toller’s confusion by forcing us to consider the ramifications of an act of terrorism, even if our protagonist is endowed with an admirable, liberal cause that the audience can get behind.
Featured Image by A24