‘First Reformed’ Review

(Ed. Note: I first saw First Reformed back in June, and instantly fell in love with it. I started writing a review, got 3/4ths through it, and then put it aside to finish at a later date. Other reviews pushed it further and further back in my queue of articles, until the recent Gotham Award nominations awarded it bids for Best Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Actor. I have now finished the review in the hopes that you will check it out On Demand or on DVD, as I have done since. Enjoy!)

First Reformed is a brand of movie that simply isn’t made anymore. Paul Schrader, the writer/director who brought us Taxi Driver, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and The Last Temptation of Christ, has crafted another near-masterpiece for his oeuvre, a 70s-esque psychological dive into faith in the modern world. First Reformed is the type of slow-burning film that gets to you, sinking its teeth in early on and refusing to let go, and I for one am thrilled that these types of movies are still being made.

Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) has lived a hard life. After pressuring his son to enlist in the Iraq War, only for him to subsequently die, his marriage fell apart and he turned to the bottle. His saving grace came when his friend, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer), asked him to become a pastor in his megachurch, Abundant Life. While Jeffers oversees the main church services, Toller leads the youth groups, as well as services at First Reformed, the oldest church in New York preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Toller spends much of his time toiling away in solitude, but his life is upended as he comes into contact with a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), her morose activist husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), and a mysterious diagnosis looming on the horizon.

What makes First Reformed a classic of New Hollywood proportions is the way it grapples with complex themes in mature, thoughtful ways. Specifically, Schrader wants to explore the role of the Church in a modern society, and all the baggage that comes with those questions: Should a faithful person always take a stand? How can one truly lead the flock when forces on every side corrupt and radicalize the Church’s teachings for their own benefit? And most significantly, after everything we’ve done, to one another and to the planet itself, can God ever truly forgive us for what we’ve become? It is against this backdrop that Schrader constructs his morality play, allowing his characters to debate, contemplate, and struggle with the hard questions in the Sisyphean hope of finding the correct answer, let alone how church and faith fit into it all. And what’s more, Schrader is so astute a filmmaker, even the way he stages scenes possess no right answer. Just take a look at the opening shot, a masterful push-in on First Reformed Church as it comes into focus from the darkness. It possesses a feeling first associated with dread, foreboding, and inevitability, but there is more to it than that. But more on that later. Schrader wants us to take a long hard look at how modern day society is destroying everything – the planet, human decency, and even the Church itself. When we enter into the life of Reverend Toller, his church is slowly failing, its pastor slowly dying, as it finds itself abandoned in favor of a megachurch. The film’s views on megachurchs tends to lean towards the ambivalent: it understands the heart and soul of their message, but it wholeheartedly believes that those who run and attend these conglomerates are trading in true faith and compassion for wealth and convenience. What’s worse, First Reformed has essentially been reduced to a tourist trap, a museum designed to teach faith and history and instead thrives on selling merchandise. It is a clear condemnation of a “religious” society that favors materialism over spiritualism. And if the message weren’t clear enough, it becomes abundantly obvious once we are introduced to Michael Gaston’s Ed Balq. Balq uses his vast fortune and faux faith to essentially control the services, deciding what messages are preached and how services should be run. There are few scenes as potent, relevant, and intelligent as when Balq derides Toller for a homily condemning humanity for its hand in destroying God’s greatest creation – Earth. The idea of Big Business criticizing a reverend for teaching God’s word as “too political” is made literal here, and it’s all thanks to Schrader’s writing and directing. And lest we find ourselves siding with Balq, Schrader weaves in a little history, in the hopes of making his greater themes more clear. Schrader includes the detail that the First Reformed Church was a stop on the Underground Railroad – demonstrating a time when the Church was unafraid to take a stand on “political issues” in the face of outside pressures. It paints a very blunt picture that when the Church abandons the messages at its core in order to pander to greediness and corruption, it loses sight of its own intentions.

Meanwhile, Schrader also wants to explore the weight of faith and decaying society through the questions weighing in on the characters’ consciences. Toller, in particular, suffers under the weight of these problems, which not only include the fate of the world, but of the imposing threat of radicalization. While Toller is a traditional, love and kindness-inspired reverend, he continuously finds himself trying to save the souls of his parish. Bombarded with news both true and false, a sense of victimization, and a general feeling of hopelessness, many of his younger charges find themselves driven further and further to the fringes, drawn in to the far left (extremist environmentalists) and the far right (extremist racists) and false notions of how to please God. As those he teaches begin to pull away in favor of man-made anxieties and solutions, Toller himself begins to lose grip on the weight of the world’s problems, and finds himself drawn into the violence he’s been battling. And while all of this is going on, our characters frequently pause the action to debate amongst themselves (in beautifully written prose) the hard truths that face them as people of faith: “How can we respect God in a world that values money over His creations?” “What do we do when the church abandons the message that called us?” “All those great men who came before…did God hear they’re prayers?” Oftentimes, Schrader leaves the audience to their own conclusions. Sometimes, he provides answers – when Michael asks John if God can forgive us for what we’ve done to this world, John replies, “I don’t know. No one can know the mind of God. But we can choose.” Either way, the film is asking us to think about the hard questions in a way few films dare to challenge us anymore. In between the verbal messages and themes, Schrader weaves a tapestry of religious allegories and metaphors, not unlike the Great Authors of old. The most obvious, and yet most touching, is the naming of the female lead “Mary.” Yes, naming your pregnant female lead Mary is about as noticeable as one can get, and yet there’s a reason it works here. Mary is not so much a true character as she is a symbol of true faith. While we often see the male leaders trying and failing to live good, wholesome lives based on their interpretations of God – from John to Michael to Ed to Jeffers – it is Mary that truly understands God’s message. She is a figure, not unlike her namesake, without hatred or bigotry or evil, following God’s call while caring for all his creations, from her unborn child to the broken men who love her to the planet as a whole. It’s a clear allegory, and yet Schrader employs it with discreet and astute precision. Schrader uses these themes, allegories, and discussions as a means of finding the heart of the church in a time that has lost sight of its original intention.

Of course, not everything is a big, chaotic battle for the fate of the Church and the World. This is Paul Schrader we’re talking about, and if there’s one subject he cares about more than any other, it’s what it looks like when a man has been broken down beyond his breaking point. And if you want a man who has lost the will to live, look no further than Reverend John Toller. Schrader and Hawke work in tandem to make Toller a complex, broken man trying to find the power to go on. When we meet him, he has already lost his son, he has already returned to the bottle, he has already reached the heights of his depression, and to top it all off, he’s pissing blood. Toller is not a well man, and without something to push him forward, be it religion, love, or something else, he is eventually going to reach a breaking point. And that’s the main thrust of First Reformed: like Taxi Driver before, this is a two hour exercise in watching a man beyond the point of no return. We hear through a variety of monologues as Toller finds himself slowly self-destructing, making choices that he knows are against his best interest, but something inside him (a conscience? Depression? Something else?) drives him towards anyway – after making enemies with a political rant at Ed Balq, his inner monologue ponders, “The man who says nothing always seems smarter. Why couldn’t I do that?” He’s the template for the Schrader Male, a man falling apart, too self-destructive to ever be happy, struggling to pray and living every hour like his darkest hour. However, what makes First Reformed a unique (and perhaps even smarter) film is that, unlike Schrader’s previous efforts, the side characters are not merely victims of Toller’s Inner Male Rage. Instead of Jodie Foster or Cathy Moriarty bearing the brunt of the consequences to their counterpart’s actions, Schrader surrounds his antihero with people who actually care for his well-being. Whether it’s Mary’s kindness, Esther’s (Virginia Hill) love, or even Jeffers’ empathy (“Even a pastor needs a pastor”), there are a variety of characters, regardless of moral strength and background, each trying to bolster Toller and save him from itself. Maybe Schrader has grown up since the 80s; maybe he’s grown tired of his nihilism and fascination with the Lone White Male narrative. However, whatever inspired this decision, it makes for a stronger, refreshing film.

As for the filmmaking, I’ve never thought of Schrader as an auteur director before, but he makes a strong case for his coronation here. Schrader imbibes this film with a very 70s-esque aesthetic, slowly building in the same vein of films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Badlands. Schrader laces his film with allusions to both films that inspired him and films he created, from the alcoholic inversion of communion involving a dinner of bread and whiskey seen in Diary of a Country Priest to a buttoning-up sequence straight out of Taxi Driver. Each homage works as a shorthand for the audience to understand the emotional core of each scene. Meanwhile, Schrader’s script isn’t perfect, but it’s incredibly strong. Personally, I found Hawke’s inner monologues often came at inopportune times, cutting away from a much more interesting scene, but they improved as the film went on, and it did allow us the opportunity to watch Hawke’s face as the scene progressed. And whenever the film isn’t using voiceover, it instead crafts a litany of great character debates over morality, choices, and faith, with every sentence, every word, and every syllable sounding deliberately chosen. And while we’re on the subject of morality and faith, I want to talk about the way Schrader wove these themes into the very fabric of the film. There are little references to the morals on display throughout, most clearly when a choir sings of the white cloths of God before Toller enters wearing all-black robes – if that’s not an indication of the state of his soul, I don’t know what is. And there are few sequences that sum up a film as succinctly as The Magical Mystery Tour scene at the beginning of First Reformed’s third act. I don’t want to spoil it for you all, so I will simply say it’s a strong summary of faith, beauty, depression, environmentalism, love, death, and so much more, wrapped up in a little moment of magical realism. I’m a little disappointed that the CGI during this sequence is so shoddy, but I’m willing to forgive it based on its overall emotional rawness. Meanwhile, the cinematography is picturesque in its old-school 4:3 aspect ratio, creating a bleak square in which the action can play out, and which emphasizes the loneliness at Toller’s core. And while I found that Schrader dragged his dark, bleak ending out for a few beats too long (it was depressing twist after depressing twist), the final shot is so incredibly powerful, so incredibly emotional, and so incredibly cathartic, I’m willing to forgive any faults that came before. Quite simply, this is a masterful film.

As for the acting, Ethan Hawke gives a commendable performance as the complicated Reverend Toller. He’s no De Niro (Schrader and former partner Martin Scorsese’s prior muse), but he’s still pretty damn good. Hawke manages a stoicism for much of the film’s runtime that takes its toll on the audience, and makes the final scenes all the more striking. He makes it painful for the audience to watch Toller fall apart, and that is the essential role of acting. I also found myself quite taken by Amanda Seyfried, who allows her giant green eyes to do most of the talking. She possesses an innocence that makes the role work, while never drifting into the realm of naiveté. As for the rest of the roles, each side character gives the film his all: Phillip Ettinger’s Michael is a quite highlight, especially his early debates with Hawke, while Gaston makes Ed Balq a realistically hypocritical assh*le. And I really want to give credit to Cedric Kyles, who forgoes the fame that normally accompanies his “The Entertainer” title in order to play a toned back straight man, complex in his morality but willing to care for broken souls like Toller. Kyles is an excellent edition to the film, and I hope that he continues taking against-type dramatic roles – he’s really quite good at them.

First Reformed is a modern-day work of art, an artifact from a bygone era. Paul Schrader has made a film that Martin Scorsese, Robert Bresson, and Ingmar Bergman could be proud of, and I’m still amazed I had a chance to see it. Should you finish this film and inexplicably leave cold, I urge you to give it a second chance, just to watch that opening scene again, to see how your perception can change. Earlier on, I referred to the opening shot of the church coming into focus as ominous, foreboding, and depressing. It is only when you come to the end of the film you realize that it is the light in the darkness, beckoning you towards redemption. That is what true art is about: its messages change and evolve not only with repeat viewings, but during that same viewing itself. It is a feat most directors don’t attempt anymore, and one in which Schrader revels. I adored First Reformed, finding it a modern-day twist on the styles and themes of the 1970s. And while it may not be Schrader’s best outing as a director, it is a respectable enough film that will only improve with age.


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