The long shadow cast by Paul Schrader has given us the best, and the most dreary and insulting, of modern cinema. As a writer, his neuroses combined with his deep understanding of film noir helped create a thematic (and even structural) language we’re still fed, 45 years on. The Yakuza, Obsession, and of course the towering Taxi Driver have a lot to answer for, as do Schrader’s transitions into directing: Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo. If you’re bored of films – from all over the world and at all budget levels – trying desperately and self-seriously to say something new about the intersection of masculinity, violence and cinema, then Schrader’s surely one of your main targets.
First Reformed is Schrader’s 31st film overall, and his 12th as both writer and director. It is unlike anything he’s made before and, somewhat thankfully, unlike anything he’s influenced. The movie follows Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a small-town priest in upstate New York, who meets a despondent environmentalist and slowly becomes an advocate on behalf of our ailing planet – rubbing up against his Church superiors in the process. Toller is the latest of Schrader’s occasional Travis Bickle rewrites, but this priest and the cinematic world he inhabits are a surprising, and welcome, return to the director’s early love of “transcendental style” – a phrase coined by Schrader for his 1972 book on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. In fact, by circumventing his own well-honed playbook, Schrader’s masterful meditation seems to transcend most of contemporary cinema’s broadest norms.
Spoilers throughout, as it is impossible to discuss the power of this film without addressing the fullness of Schrader’s argument.
– “Twelve months. Can I keep up an exercise for that long?” –
Reverend Toller, of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, upstate New York, has decided to keep a journal. He will document his thoughts for one year, before shredding, then burning, the pages. It is a simple and profound thing: the project is an expression of commitment and dedication. It is an act of reification but also humility. It is, by his own admission, “self-pity.” It is the diary of a country priest, become the diary of a madman. The diary of Reverend Toller is little more than a display of inadequacy, hypocrisy and despair. Toller’s story makes First Reformed a rare and haunting work.
Hawke essays a character wracked by some indefinable network of guilty thoughts – whose basic elements are laid out in a fascinatingly misguided monologue near the beginning – who can only define himself by one thing: he is there but for the grace of God. It is a commitment he must maintain at all times, or be without self.
When Toller meets with a parishioner, environmental activist Michael (Philip Ettinger), our quiet priest begins to wrestle with a new kind of enlightenment: from a position of calm theological authority to a kind of fanaticism. Michael is convinced it would be ethically unjust to bring a baby into our world, as it currently is and probably shall remain. His wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), is pregnant; Toller’s position, naturally, is that while the ecological facts are both true and horrifying, it is paramount that Michael not fall into despondence. Toller wants Michael to consider that “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our head simultaneously: hope and despair.”
But this circumvents actual commitment. It simply chooses a fence to sit on. Toller, in counselling Michael to “live a righteous life”, has already inherently come down on the side of hope. And Michael is irrevocably in the throes of despair. When this troubled man commits suicide, intending to be found by the Reverend, our protagonist is forced to reckon with complex questions of dedication and martyrdom.
– “Everything preserved renews creation. It’s how we participate in creation.” –
These grand notions, the sort of ideas long reckoned with across genres, nations and budgets in cinema, are here galvanised by a genuine real-world urgency. First Reformed is not some leaden faith-in-crisis drama; it is an expression of genuine horror. Toller’s concern is actually very simple: it is a question of basic stewardship. We’re drawn in with a grim efficiency as Michael passionately, desperately lays it out: one-third of the natural world has been destroyed in a half-century; the Earth will be around three degrees warmer by 2050; our own lifetimes could, or will, see a 20% loss of land mass, and a 50% reduction in natural crops in Africa.
We watch as first Michael, and then Toller, stare into an abyss that, through sheer theme alone, transcends the usual concerns of philosophical, arthouse cinema. Toller describes his ailments – including possible stomach cancer – as “petty” compared to the Almighty. But in First Reformed, even questioning one’s relationship with the Almighty becomes petty compared to our commitment to the Earth.
– “By thy words you shall be justified and by thy words you shall be condemned.” –
It is from this all-too palpable crisis that Toller descends into his own despair, and we unblinkingly follow. In fact, we probably agree with him. The diary becomes a site of posterity as its writer’s commitment shifts from one spiritual project to another – by the end, it appears Toller’s plan is no longer to destroy his words, but his body and his church, and “the destroyers of the Earth.”
References are made throughout not only to general martyrdom, but to the specific grand lineage and history of First Reformed. Our hero, for instance, demonstrates to a school group that his church was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Toller had earlier counselled Michael that “Courage is the solution to despair.” Here, beneath First Reformed, is a reminder that often true courage is more than simply living in hope.
Toller and Mary discover a suicide vest Michael had made; this, while the Reverend prepares for his church’s sestercentennial and rubs up against Church leader Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, usually credited as “the Entertainer”), bankrolling him, and the industrialist, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), bankrolling him. Even non-Schrader scholars can see where this is going.
– “Who am I to talk about pride?” –
Hawke navigates his slow transition, and his many contradictions, as masterfully as Schrader scripts them. Here is a man in constant pain, both physical and spiritual, whose brow is constantly furrowed. Yet the pain seems to turn into a general queasiness as Toller’s mission becomes clearer: he obsesses over his own “personal inadequacy and failings”, rejecting a sometime love interest for this very reason – she reminds him of his “petty” earthliness. The Reverend on some level sees himself as the answer to the question, posed in song at Michael’s funeral, “Who’s gonna stand up and save the Earth?” Earlier in the film he regards himself as an empty vessel for the word of God, “called for [his] loneliness.” Throughout, he displays an ambivalence towards his own corporeal mortality. By the end, his pride and dedication and self-loathing have swelled irreversibly: he doesn’t want to commit an act of violent protest, but he feels he must.
For the audience, the problem spreads even wider: we are somewhat compelled to view Toller’s prospective final act as justified catharsis, but with the overriding question of what this could possibly accomplish. Are we participating in this sin of pride by willing him to get one over on these enabling assholes and stand up for the Earth? Both Balq and Jeffers accuse Toller of failing to live in the real world. (In fact, one of the film’s most striking sequences is essentially a fantasy of ascendance.) What does this mean for an audience watching the fictionalised world of First Reformed and agreeing that yes, something must be done?
The possibility of moral purity – and the looming horror of hypocrisy – becomes one of the most troubling driving forces going into the back half of the film. This film haunts on several escalating levels. First, it grabs you with talk of real, irreversible ecological destruction. Then it demonstrates the apparent futility of understanding this in the face of wilful ignorance. Then it actually compels you to support, on some level, the cathartic principle of a murderous suicide-statement. But finally, Schrader leads us to the futility even of that, closing his film with a strikingly original image of outright despair.
– ” … ” –
Toller’s final journal entry is not revealed to us; he scribbles something, after arming his bomb vest, and we simply don’t hear it. But then Mary, to whom he has become close, shows up for the anniversary event despite his warning her not to. Toller removes his vestments, and screams into them. He staggers about, growling in frustration, taking off the suicide vest. He soon finds some barbed wire, picked up some days before. He desperately grabs at his dog collar, rips his shirt off, and wraps the barbed wire around his torso. Covered in blood, he dons white robes and swallows drain cleaner.
This is only the final 10 minutes of an almost two-hour film, and represents a sudden explosion of madness. Schrader’s transcendental leanings have constructed a still, sombre, often silent film, in which every background looks cold and sparse, the spaces austere and the furniture uncomfortable. So it is a shock to cut to Toller, covered in blood, his face ignited by agony and ecstasy. And a shock too when Mary enters the parsonage and he grasps her to him, the pair kissing passionately as the camera, often so impassive, circles them with the ferocity of a violent breakdown. This final image, set to the hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, is one hell of a conclusion: hope and despair intertwining, and falling right into the abyss. If even this man, this lifelong professional interpreter of the signs around us, can’t come up with anything better than this, what are the rest of us to do?
We talk of this film’s ideas being haunting, but actually, none of it works without Hawke’s towering achievement as a living expression of absolute anguish. He and Schrader work carefully to make their subject transcend the “man in crisis” (anti-)thriller framework, and make him a symbol of our own relationship to climate change and its existential horror – thus becoming even more powerful than much other environmentalist media. It is impossible to reflect on this film without picturing Hawke’s stricken face; all we have at the end, barrelling through our destabilised decade and into some nasty day of reckoning, is the considerable passion of Ernst Toller.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 9…
9th – FIRST REFORMED
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of the year to read more on our Top 10 films of 2018!