First Reformed

First Reformed

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★★
Release year: 2018
Genre: Drama, Spiritual, Thriller Director: Paul Schrader

Will God forgive us?

It’s a theological question–perhaps the theological question–regarding humanity’s relationship with God and the created order. The question bespeaks of humanity’s depraved condition–we need to be forgiven, suggesting that we are or have done something wrong–and a skepticism as to whether redemption from this condition is possible or likely. It’s a recognition of God’s existence, even as it betrays an uncertainty as to God’s nature: is God a forgiving and merciful God, a deity of wrath and judgement, or something else altogether? Does God care about our actions and ethics, particularly in how we treat one another and creation? Or has God abandoned us?

This is the question raised and repeated in Paul Schrader’s masterful and meditative First Reformed, his first film made in the transcendental style he described over four decades ago. Erudite, astute, and bold in its claims, Schrader’s book is a prelude of sorts; he would go on to pen the screenplays for classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, stories about isolated, distraught men battling to discern their place in society as they are tormented by demons both internal and external. First Reformed follows in this thematic tradition of lost souls as it focuses on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a veteran-turned-minister serving at a tiny historic Reformed church in upstate New York. Much of his ministry involves giving tours of the historic building and preparing for a celebration of its 250-year anniversary, directed and funded mainly by a nearby evangelical megachurch, Abundant Life, which oversees the property (and thus Toller’s life). Divorced and still grieving the loss of his only son in the Iraq war, Toller’s lonely routine consists mainly of alcohol, stomach pain, and writing down his contemplations in a journal. The strong parallels to Robert Bresson’s young curé of Diary of a Country Priest are certainly not accidental, although Schrader forgoes Bresson’s stiff Brechtian presentation, instead directing his actors into performances of gripping authenticity. Hawke in particular is phenomenal here, a man trying desperately to maintain control of himself even as he is overcome by the weight of the world’s grief and groaning.

Rev. Toller’s routine is disrupted by the spiritual crisis of a young couple, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger), as the former is pregnant and the latter doesn’t want to bring a child into the world. An environmental activist who recently served jail time in Canada, Michael is nervous and depressed, overwhelmed by the loom of climate change and the seemingly irreversible destruction humanity hath wrought. The 12-minute conversation between Toller and Michael is one of the more profound and theologically-rich conversations put to film. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio creates both intimacy and distance as the characters are framed in single headshots or face-to-face in the warmly greyed room. The discussion is a conversion experience of sorts for Toller, whose own torments and despair are suddenly directed by this young man’s passion for environmental care. Toller’s relationship with Mary also continues to grow in intimacy, even as Toller rejects the caring advances of a former beau, Esther (Victoria Hill), a choir director for Abundant Life’s youth choir. (Tangent: a brief scene with Abundant Life’s youth pastor having a small group discussion with some teenagers is wonderfully/painfully accurate.) As Toller learns more about the environmental crisis and the church’s involvement, he takes up a prophetic mantle on a quest towards either redemption or damnation.

In an era of post-apocalyptic cinema, First Reformed is a pre-apocalyptic film as Toller faces the reality that humanity may have gone too far. The transcendental style of emphasizing ordinary objects and moments–a whisky glass, a lamp, an empty room, trees dancing in the wind–as imbued with the divine presence makes humanity’s offense to creation all the more galling. If nature is full of God’s presence and we have knowingly polluted this world, will God forgive us? Does God care that the church has married itself to the idols of mammon and power, personified by the pairing of Abundant Life’s charismatic pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) and businessman Ed Balq (Michael Gaston)? Powerfully prophetic, First Reformed raises more questions than it answers even as it shakes its audience awake to the dire injustices of contemporary American politics and spirituality. When Jeffers raises concerns about Toller’s political stances and personal health, Toller nearly bursts out of his chair: “Well, somebody has to do something!” And Toller, like Travis Bickle before him, will do something. As Toller spirals, so does the film’s formal aesthetic, the static shots and small pans increasingly exchanged for camera movements and fantastical elements until the final 15 minutes explode into a frenzy of thrilling suspense and violent corporeal transcendence.

Schrader’s conscious nods to Bresson, Bergman, and Tarkovsky–not to mention David Lynch–place First Reformed in a long-standing tradition of spiritual masterpieces. A cinematic theologia crucis, this would make a powerful double-bill with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or Scorsese’s Silence, if one were able to endure (possibly with the help of a concoction of Pepto-Bismol and whisky, Toller’s favored drink). First Reformed prompted a spiritual and emotional crisis within me; it should come with a warning that it may trigger a dark night of the soul. There’s the environmental crisis, effectively portrayed as urgent and dire. Yet there’s also an interpersonal crisis: a pastor can’t save one of his flock. And as a pastor, I’ve been there; I have sat in the sacred space of people in spiritual crisis, sharing their burden even as I struggle with my own questions and doubts, aware that I cannot save them because I cannot even save myself. In this, First Reformed dwells mainly in the spirit of Holy Saturday, the negative space of languishing in despair and tragedy until the dawn of Resurrection Sunday breaks into our reality and transcends the boundary between death and life. One may interpret the final moments of First Reformed as the despondency of Good Friday or the hope of Easter; in either case, it is holy ground.

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