The setting for much of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a white Dutch Colonial church, simple and sturdy and indistinguishable from the thousands of similar structures that punctuate America’s hills and hollers, its exurbs and suburbs.
The chapel, First Reformed in upstate New York, is situated near Abundant Life, a pyrotechnic megachurch with live-streamed sermons and seating for 5,000, and it’s surviving only on that institution’s charitable crumbs. Its congregants can be counted on fewer than two hands, and its soundless organ probably hasn’t worked since the Bush Administration (take your pick of Bushes).
What it boasts is history: As its welcome sign trumpets, it’s the “oldest continually operating church in Albany County.” With its 250th reconsecration just weeks away, it continues to milk this heritage for everything it’s worth, selling First Reformed hats and mugs to infrequent tourists. The staff of Abundant Life pejoratively refers to First Reformed as “a souvenir shop.”
Its pastor, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), is slipping into a similar sense of disrepair — psychologically, spiritually, physically. His urine is the color of watermelon, but he keeps postponing his annual checkup, afraid for what might be discovered. He spends his solitary nights in his monastic hovel with a bottle of liquor, journaling in longhand, the beginning of a yearlong process to document his every reflection and interaction with no revisions and no mercy.
This ascetic challenge, and his entire belief system, will soon be tested by the request of a congregant, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to counsel her distraught husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary is pregnant (note the Biblical symbolism), and this news has triggered Michael, an eco-activist, into an existential crisis. How could he bring a child into a world, Michael implores, that we’re killing, year by year, hour by hour?
If First Reformed sounds like a 21st-century update of Robert Bresson’s 1951 masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest, then your cine-literacy is paying off. Like that film, its cinematography is square, economical and precise. There is not a single extraneous cut, not an inkling of wasted screen space.
Equally present in its DNA is Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, one of world cinema’s most moving disputations, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s tightly framed grapples with God. You can also trace lines back to Schrader’s own formative screenplays for Martin Scorsese, from The Last Temptation of Christ to Taxi Driver. (Devotees of the latter film will notice a couple of shots that directly echo that squalid classic.)
One thing is certain: The movie is a revelation, even without considering its film-historical building blocks. Schrader’s screenplay is a trove of extraordinary theological debates about the role of the church in modern life and politics, where God isn’t universally acknowledged as the bearded, judgmental interventionist of Christianity’s origin story, and where capitalist ideology has seeped into Scripture.
Despite his earnest attempts to walk Michael off the proverbial ledge — “Wisdom is holding onto two contradictory ideas simultaneously, hope and despair” — Toller finds himself adopting his congregant’s radical environmental belief system. Toller’s existential crisis of faith has ramifications on his church, because its benefactor, Abundant Life, is funded largely by a high-polluting energy company that tops Michael’s list of targets. “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to the planet?” Toller asks the company’s CEO (Michael Gaston), who is quick to dismiss such questions as “political” and out of the bounds of a church’s responsibility.
But should a church wash its hands of the signal issue of our lifetime — the carbon we’re emitting on God’s creation? Does it not have the moral obligation to speak out against the slow-moving apocalypse of global warming?
First Reformed wrestles with morality — as well as mortality — with a depth and clarity of few films I’ve ever seen. Ethan Hawke, in a spellbinding performance of which I didn’t know he was capable, conveys the struggles of his character and our time in frame-filling close-ups, his muted agony roiling under a furrowed brow.
Just when you think you know where the film is going, it surprises you, time and again, toward the kind of miraculous, unapologetic transcendence that should be the goal of spiritual cinema, but is usually discarded at the altar of rationality, cynicism and “realism.”
These moments will no doubt polarize, if the responses to the movie’s press screening were an accurate cross-section. My reaction is unequivocal: I spent most of the movie on the verge of tears, and I found myself weeping through the credits in a way few films have touched me before. I can’t intellectually explain the waterworks. They were primal and instinctive. Like a moment of religious ecstasy, they were impossible to translate into words.
Movies are the closest way a nonbeliever like me has come to finding God, and First Reformed is positively rapturous.
FIRST REFORMED. Director: Paul Schrader; Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston; Distributor: A24; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Movies of Lake Worth, AMC CityPlace 20, Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas Jupiter, The Classic Gateway Theater and O Cinema Miami Beach