Small details loom large from the first claustrophobic shot of a seemingly tiny church in First Reformed, which has Paul Schrader, the scribe of iconic films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, returning to write and direct another dark vision of a solitary man wrestling with his faith and self-destructive impulses. And that first shot, which so compresses the small building that is the whole world to one lonely priest, is our first step into his bleak worldview.
Ethan Hawke hauntingly embodies Reverend Toller, a middle-aged pastor at a church whose glory days are long past. Once a stop on the Underground Railroad, it’s now little more than a tourist attraction, overshadowed by its parent (mega) church Abundant Life, which boasts far more modern attractions and a thriving congregation.
Hawke’s issues come to the forefront when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, asks him to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who has become so depressed about the state of the world and what we’ve allowed it to come to he thinks it’s wrong to bring a child into it. Mary can share many of her husband’s beliefs without losing hope, but it soon becomes clear that Michael and Toller’s aren’t able to rise to her level of faith.
Even more dangerous is the increasing likelihood of Toller becoming subsumed by Michael’s despair. Toller is still grieving the death of his own child, who enlisted in the military at his encouragement, only to perish in Iraq. After that, his marriage fell apart, and Toller found his calling. When he receives a potentially terminal diagnosis, it pushes him even further towards Michael’s darkly obsessive state of mind, and we witness a man slowly losing his hope and sanity.
Granted, Toller didn’t seem to have much hope to begin with, and his sources of solace soon feed instead of ease his increasingly unhinged mind, which threatens to explode at his church’s 250th anniversary celebration. One form of solace, Mary, soon becomes less of a friend and potential love interest than Virgin Mary as Manic Pixie Dream Girl. And he would rather have that fantasy than the a real relationship with Esther (Victoria Hill), a woman his own age who actually knows him well enough to recognize that he’s flailing.
First Reformed is skilled enough to acknowledge and deeply empathize with Toller’s concerns while holding him accountable for his actions, mostly via a fellow pastor (Cedric the Entertainer) who tells him he doesn’t “live in the real world” and that God might not share his reverence for His creation, seeing as how He once destroyed it over a period of 40 days and 40 nights. What emerges is a magnificent portrait of despair, in which even the lone bright spot amidst the darkness may be nothing more than another illusion.
Schrader seems to share his protagonist’s pessimism, if not his desperation. When discussing his film, he mentioned that it is now easier than ever to envision a world without humanity, and he isn’t interested in allowing us to forget that that world may be closer to arriving than any of us want to believe. First Reformed asks if we’ll ever be forgiven for what we’ve done to the planet, and it means it. This is hammered home without respite, with an ending that refuses to give much of anything resembling answers or closure.
At times, the film’s pessimism about a world without hope comes across as wallowing rather than taking the opportunity to explore how our personal hopelessness so often gives rise to extremism. The characterization of Mary is especially problematic, not only because we see her through Toller’s eyes. I mean, she’s named Mary. Really? It’s not much of a distraction from Schrader’s delicately realized vision, but it is a distraction nonetheless. At 71, Schrader has had a long career giving us movies worth obsessing over, and First Reformed proves he’s still a force to be reckoned with.