2018, R, 108 min. Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston, Van Hansis, Michael Metta, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Frank Murray.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 25, 2018
Paul Schrader’s ongoing crises of faith regarding both God and man show no signs of temperance whatsoever in First Reformed. If anything, this knuckle-whitening depiction of a man of God toppling into his own spiritual abyss is one of Schrader’s finest and most excoriating films to date. Does compassion exclude passion, does despair defile hope, and what are we to make of the multitudes of Christians who daily turn a blind eye to the rapacious corporate rape of God’s creation? And doesn’t the shepherd owe it to the flock to stand strong in his stewardship of the valley? Schrader’s film solicits these and many other questions. It’s a movie every person of faith should see, although many won’t enjoy looking into this fractured mirror of modern life.
Hawke gives the most devastating and best performance of his career to date as the Reverend Ernst Toller, who oversees a tiny congregation at First Reformed Church in upstate New York. We learn early on that Rev. Toller is a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to join up and go to Iraq where he was promptly killed. Toller is, throughout the movie, grief-stricken by not only this fact but the resulting demise of his marriage. Alone at night in the ethereally spartan church, he drinks, confesses his sins and doubts to God via writing in his journal (“a form of prayer,” he explains, in voiceover, and then drinks some more. He’s not only suffering from a spiritual pain but also a literal one in his gut: His bodily functions are running red and attended by bouts of extreme pain. Toller’s grief is compounded by the arrival of pregnant parishioner Mary (Seyfried, and by the way, it pays to follow the characters names), whose husband Michael (Ettinger), an environmental activist, can discern no point in bringing another life into what he views as a dying world. Extreme complications for all involved rapidly arise.
Also burdening Rev. Toller is the upcoming 250th reconsecration of First Reformed, which is being overseen and funded by the local Christian Prosperity-themed megachurch headed by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). “You’re always in the Garden [of Gethsemane],” the husky Jeffers tells the reed-thin and obviously ailing Toller. “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden all the time. He went to the mount, you know.” And it’s true. Rev. Toller’s tortured psyche seems hellbent on self-flagellation.
Schrader mastered the art of cinematic suspense ages ago in the films he has written for Martin Scorsese. Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and most pertinent to this movie, Taxi Driver. His love of Robert Bresson’s oeuvre (in particular Diary of a Country Priest) is also notable for cinephiles. But First Reformed hums disquietingly along at Schrader’s own clockwork pace which, like Hawke’s mesmerizing performance, is austere, stoic, and ultimately self-destructive. It’s a glorious piece of filmmaking, albeit not in the “Glory unto God” fashion. Despite some critical reservations about the final scene, at its thrumming core First Reformed honestly begs the ultimate spiritual query, what if this was heaven? Wouldn’t that be hell?