Film Review: First Reformed (2018) DIR. Paul Schrader
By Belle Mcintyre
This austere, disturbing and provocative offering from the great director/screenwriter Paul Schrader is a sterling example of the adage which advocates writing about that which you know. Schrader’s formative years were intensely influenced by his strict midwestern upbringing by parents who embraced the tenets of the Dutch Reform Church. It also explains his affinity with Ingmar Bergman whose work he has attributed as one of his major influences and whose background is so similar. This informs both the screenplay which he wrote and the spare, pared-down look of the production which involves a deeply personal portrait of a tormented priest whose inner turmoil is nakedly revealed in his daily journals.
The Rev. Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) has been posted to the historic First Reformed Church in rural upstate New York, known only for it’s role as a safe haven for slaves travelling the route of the Underground Railroad north for safety from persecution. The church is modest, sparse and small with an almost non-existent congregation. It’s main justification is the income generated by tourists from the gift shop who buy souvenirs about the church’s historical significance. Toller, a broken wreck of a man, is in residence as a respite for potential healing from a recent personal tragedy - the death of his son and subsequent dissolution of his marriage. He is lonely, depressed and sick, with no interest in the life around him. Fortunately, his minimally attended church requires little of him. This allows him the time to devote to his personal rehabilitation. To that end he has committed to writing a daily journal to include every detail of his life, no matter how small and insignificant. He is tormented by a crisis of faith and cannot seem remember how to pray. He has also taken to hitting the bottle from morning through the day and into the night, allegedly as a palliative to a painful stomach condition. This is a bleak situation.
His only real responsibility is to make the opening speech for the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the church’s founding. This is a task which is an obligation he takes seriously although his ennui does not permit any real enthusiasm for the purpose. The absurdity of the pomp and circumstance about to be bestowed on his insignificant church, juxtaposed with the supremely relevant mega-church of the same denomination. Church of Abundant Life, with a congregation of 5,000 and led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), who is Toller’s heirarchical superior and friend, provide an opening to the disheartening reality of the politics of all things ecclesiastical and municipal. This introduces the inevitable big business involvements behind nearly every seemingly civic action. This is a timely and fairly cynical film.
When one of Abundant Life’s parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to him to ask that he counsel her husband, Roger (Van Hasis), the Rev. finally finds a reason to awaken to his ministerial purpose and reach out to the troubled young man. Roger has just returned from his extended tour of duty as an environmental activist and seems to be suffering some sort of PTSD. He is deeply and profoundly depressed by the state of the world and cannot imagine bringing to life the child that he has just learned that his wife is carrying. After, Roger’s mysterious death his concerns appear to have been passed on to Toller and filled his personal void. His encounters with the grieving Mary assume a new intensity as the two find solace together and Toller’s inner life become more complicated and troubling.
Until the final apocalyptic scenes most of the action has been interior which makes the outward manifestations of Toller’s state of mind come as a shock. The remarkable thing about the performance of Ethan Hawke is that even as he is inflicting torturous pain on himself and planning a heinous criminal act he does so with such restraint and resists using any of the histrionic or dramatic actorly tools available to him, remaining fully in character. Instead he delivers his character’s inner torment with the same pared down simplicity as the First Reformed church. But there is nothing simple about this film. There are so many religious interpretations possible that I imagine that there will be spirited discussions of meaning and significance including martyrdom, sacrifice, resurrection, religious hypocrisy, apostasy, righteousness and the meaning of faith itself.