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'First Reformed' Is 'A Form Of Prayer' In An Era Of Commodified Religion

Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller in "First Reformed." (Courtesy A24)MoreCloseclosemore
Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller in "First Reformed." (Courtesy A24)

“First Reformed” is the film Paul Schrader has been working toward for more than 40 years.

A diamond-hard distillation of the themes and preoccupations he’s been wrestling with throughout his career, it updates and revises Schrader’s legendary “Taxi Driver” screenplay for an era of commodified religion and environmental ruin. But this most lurid of filmmakers has here stripped away any semblance of sensationalism to deliver a movie that’s electrifyingly, almost agonizingly still. The austerity of “First Reformed” makes it look like a film that could have been made 50 years ago, while the urgency and immediacy of its concerns feel ripped from tomorrow’s headlines.

Ethan Hawke stars as Rev. Ernst Toller, a sickly former military chaplain now preaching to a flock of dozens in an ancient, upstate New York chapel that serves mainly as a souvenir shop for the 5,000 seat megachurch down the road. Racked with guilt over the death of his son in Iraq and subsequent collapse of his marriage, Toller drinks away his evenings alone in an empty room, ignoring obvious health problems and — like so many Schrader protagonists before him — compulsively keeping a diary via which we’re privy to his increasingly erratic inner monologue. “This is also a form of prayer,” the reverend informs us.

Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller with Amanda Seyfried as Mary in "First Reformed." (Courtesy A24)
Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller with Amanda Seyfried as Mary in "First Reformed." (Courtesy A24)

Toller’s isolated self-abnegation is knocked for a loop upon the arrival of Amanda Seyfried’s pregnant Mary, a devout parishioner whose eco-activist husband (Philip Ettinger) wants her to have an abortion because he believes it immoral to bring a child into a world that will soon be ravaged by the effects of climate change. He and Toller share a scene of profound theological debate and sobering scientific statistics — as pungently-written an exchange as any Schrader has penned — about the existential dance between hope and despair. The argument reinvigorates our passive preacher, and then Mary finds an IED suicide vest hidden underneath her husband’s stuff in the garage.

“Will God forgive us for what we have done to his creation?” Toller wonders, which is probably the wrong question to ask when your church is funded by donations from energy executives currently poisoning the planet. (Of course, the irony is lost on our hero that he’s preaching about poor stewardship of the Lord’s gifts while polluting himself with whiskey and pissing blood.) Toller’s slow-motion crack-up is deliberately meant to mirror that of a certain cabbie in a 1976 Martin Scorsese picture you all probably remember, but Schrader sheds that movie’s hothouse sensuality for something more severe, as chilly as the upstate winter light.

Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career as Reverend Ernst Toller in "First Reformed," according to critic Sean Burns. (Courtesy A24)
Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career as Reverend Ernst Toller in "First Reformed," according to critic Sean Burns. (Courtesy A24)

Shot in a boxy, old-school aspect ratio that makes the compositions as cramped as these characters, “First Reformed” rips out pages from the Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky transcendental playbook, dropping so many nods to international art cinema classics a pal called it “’Ready Player One’ for The Criterion Collection.” Schrader almost never moves the camera and lingers in silence instead of a musical score. The sets are all nearly empty and painted in shades of off-white and grey, an ascetic visual scheme lending the film the eerie effect of an unblinking stare.

Hawke, his ashen visage matching the movie’s overcast skies, gives the performance of his career. Speaking as someone who grew up in the ‘90s recoiling from his smug hipster persona and goateed attempts to be the voice of Generation X, it’s taken me far too long to get comfortable with what a fine actor Ethan Hawke has become in middle age. With masterful control he quietly conveys the pain of a fundamentally decent man ripped apart from the inside by feelings of impotence and shame. Devotion to duty cost his son’s life in a meaningless war, and Toller is consumed by the archetypal Schrader character’s burning need to somehow be of service, to put all these words into any kind of action, however catastrophic.

Cedric the Entertainer as Cedric Kyles in "First Reformed." (Courtesy A24)
Cedric the Entertainer as Cedric Kyles in "First Reformed." (Courtesy A24)

“You’re always in the garden,” observes the megachurch’s pastor (played with great warmth and unexpected gravity by comedian Cedric the Entertainer, billed here as Cedric Kyles), concerned about his colleague’s Gethsemane-level angst. “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden.” It’s a sly bit of auto-critique from Schrader, who in the four films he wrote for Martin Scorsese (“Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Bringing out the Dead” and the aforementioned “Taxi Driver”) as well as his own directorial efforts like “Hardcore,” “American Gigolo” and “Affliction” sometimes has a tendency to lay it on a bit thick.

“First Reformed” has its share of giant, honking metaphors which I personally found delightful. Frankly, I’d have been disappointed if the beatific pregnant woman hadn’t been named “Mary,” and one must admit it’s a pretty great joke that in Toller’s church the organ doesn’t work. The film’s final reel ditches all the hushed restraint and soars off into ecstatic mysteries that will presumably confound many moviegoers, but I was damn near levitating with joy. “First Reformed” is a major work by a cinema giant, urgently reckoning with issues both current and eternal. It is also a form of prayer.

Related:

Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic, The ARTery
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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