Though Paul Schrader, writer and director of First Reformed, has had a long and storied career, he is best known for writing two very different works before the age of thirty. The first is the critical text “Transcendental Style in Film,” in which he noted a bridge of form, if not content, between the Calvinist church of his upbringing and the cinema it deemed forbidden. The other is the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, which he wrote in under a month, while broke and homeless, with – the legend goes – a loaded gun on his desk for motivation. Both filmmakers moved into Hollywood from religious childhoods, and if the two milieus seem radically distinct, if not diametrically opposed, consider that both filmmakers have spent the last forty years attempting to reconcile them. Downstream from Taxi Driver, we find Scorsese wrestling with the sacred and the profane more explicitly than ever in 2016’s Silence, and now we have Schrader’s First Reformed, also about the anguish of a priest caught between the carnal and the spiritual. Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver’s indelible protagonist, described himself in his diary as “God’s lonely man.” The device of a diary read in voiceover recurs here, as does the loneliness. The Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is such a kindred soul to Bickle that it’s easy to imagine him paraphrasing one of the other man’s most iconic lines: “Are You talking to me?”
Hawke, one of the most underappreciated actors working today, gives the performance of his life by evoking and internalizing Toller’s growing agony, and Schrader’s directorial hand is characterized by a similar balance of assurance and restraint. The world of First Reformed, mirroring the bleak headspace of its hero, is grey, spare. The camera is so still that when it does move, the effect is shocking, even ecstatic. Schrader draws liberally and conspicuously from the well of European arthouse cinema, stealing from Bergman, Bresson, and Tarkovsky, but roots his film so firmly in the modern day that its unique identity is undeniable. Indeed, the transposition of new content into an old style is itself a formal illumination of the film’s interests.
I recently co-authored a piece with Robert Brown on the thematic concerns shared by the modern slew of Star Wars and Marvel movies. While one would hardly expect those films to have anything in common with the lofty aims of something like First Reformed, the underlying anxieties are much the same. The difference, of course, is that Schrader does not paper over his concern with jokes and special effects: he dives into the same apocalyptic disillusionment with traditions and institutions, but is acutely conscious of the void left behind by their loss. Toller, a former military chaplain, tells us that he encouraged his son Joseph (lacking, we suspect, a Technicolor dream coat) to enlist because it was a “family tradition.” The boy’s subsequent death in Iraq ended his life and his parents’ marriage, but it may also have been a death knell for his father’s faith in his country and his religion, if not his God. Toller’s disenchantment is symptomatic of a larger disease. First Reformed’s titular church has been reduced to little more than a historical curiosity – referred to with derision, or benign indifference, as a “museum” or “souvenir shop.” In a telling scene, Toller wrestles to prop up a gravestone that has fallen over in the cemetery. When the film shows us a typical Sunday service, we can count the number of parishioners on two hands. Like its pastor, First Reformed is on its last legs, an outmoded and calcifying fossil kept alive only by the support of a very modern megachurch, Abundant Life, which seats thousands and streams its services live – though despite its cheery moniker, its sterile hallways and cafeteria resemble those of a hospital, tending to physical ailments rather than spiritual ones. In the words of one character, it feels “more like a company than a church.” As the film begins, the two churches – or, perhaps, the two faces of the Church – exist in an uneasy symbiosis. Abundant Life takes care of the menial tasks (plumbing, repairs) needed to keep First Reformed up and running; Toller dutifully uploads his sermons online and prepares his church for a historic “Reconsecration” service to commemorate its two hundred and fiftieth anniversary. Toller’s early interactions with the larger church’s pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) are polite but reserved, tinged by a mixture of gratefulness and resentment – the beginning of a schism that only widens as the film goes on.
The disastrous split is heralded by the arrival of Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of Toller’s parishioners, who requests that he counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger) – a despairing environmental activist who wants to end the life of their child in utero, believing that the human race is doomed and it would be inhumane to bring a new life into an unlivable world. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to His creation?” he asks. The question haunts Toller, though he rephrases it, perhaps more piously, not asking whether God can forgive, but whether He will. Michael takes his name from the archangel often thought to herald the second coming of Christ, and in their initial dialogue, he tells Toller that Mary’s child will be thirty-three years old in the year 2050 – Christ’s age at the time of His death and passion, though both men wish to prevent the child’s suffering. First Reformed suggests that the anguish Michael and Toller feel over man’s defilement of God’s creation is understandable and proper, but the despair with which they respond leads them to troubling actions: disbelieving that creation can be saved, they seek drastic solutions that are destructive to themselves and others. Michael builds a suicide vest and, when discovered, shoots himself. Toller journals, “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.” Michael assumes, for the sake of argument, that Mary’s child will be a little girl, but it is later revealed to be a boy – a subtle rebuke, perhaps, to the false sense of certitude from which his despair springs.
According to Toller, “A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in one’s head is life itself.” He argues that one cannot reason one’s way out of despair; instead, he argues, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our head simultaneously.” If this is so, First Reformed is populated almost entirely by distinctly unwise characters, and despite his teachings to the contrary, Toller dwells on despair without its corollary. “I know nothing can change,” he tells himself, “And I know that there is no hope.”
Discussing the younger generation, Jeffers laments, “There’s just no middle ground with these kids. Everything is so extreme.” Extremism permeates First Reformed, though it is not always political or religious in nature. Mary notes that pregnancy “makes your feelings more extreme,” and in addition to the split between despair and hope, there is the split between the spirit and the flesh, the psychic and the physical. The bareness of Toller’s church and living quarters express the bareness of his life, which is ascetic in the extreme. Christ teaches that we must mortify the flesh so as not to be subject to its appetites, but He does not promise that we will be saved from our bodies; rather, He promises the ultimate salvation of body and soul alike. Toller’s attempts at piety do not discipline his flesh, but leave it to run amok and decay; he drinks heavily and, despite alarming medical symptoms like coughing fits and blood in his urine, delays his medical appointments. His neglect of the material world extends to his church, the body of believers; the plumbing problems of First Reformed reflect the plumbing problems in his own body. The church organ, pointedly, is not working, just as Toller’s own organs are failing. A tourist visiting the site relates a crude joke about the choir director chasing the minister around the church and catching him by the organ, but Toller is determined not to be caught by Esther (Victoria Hill), choir director of Abundant Life, who expresses genuine concern for the body whose failings he would rather ignore. “Leave me alone,” he spits at her. “I despise you. Your concerns are petty. You are a stumbling block.” Toller embodies one of Nietzsche’s chief complaints against the Christian church: its otherworldliness, its focus on the afterlife at the expense of the present life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the aptly named Abundant Life, which seems to preach a glib gospel of material prosperity without much sense of a higher purpose. The difference in emphasis between the two churches is hammered home when Jeffers makes a scatological joke about Martin Luther’s musical compositions, provoking strained, polite laughter from Toller, who would rather ignore bodily functions even as they rebel violently against him. Later, Jeffers accuses, “You don’t live in the real world” – the world, that is, of the immanent and the embodied. This division is disastrous. Toller clings to his ideals, but flees from a reality that doesn’t measure up to them, isolating himself and falling prey to despair. “For you, every hour is the darkest hour,” Jeffers berates – but for his own part, he seems carefully insulated against difficulty, with a focus on pragmatism that compromises his principles. His church is bankrolled by an obnoxious industrialist (Michael Gaston, or Burt Peterson of Mad Men fame) who brusquely dismisses Toller’s concerns about the adverse environmental impact of his corporation. During a youth group meeting at Abundant Life, one teenager asks why her devout father is experiencing difficulties finding work. The leader, clearly and uncomfortably out of his depth, passes the question on to Toller, whose attempt to answer is quickly shot down by an angry boy who doesn’t like the idea that Christianity is “for losers.”
For the most part, First Reformed traces the widening of this increasingly complicated gap, incisively noting the failures of both extremes while offering little hope of reconciliation. If there is hope, it comes in the form of Mary, to whom Toller grows close after her husband’s suicide. “It’s amazing,” Toller notes in voiceover when the two go bicycling together, “The simple curative power of exercise.” Though he rejects the exhortations of Jeffers, Esther, and everyone else to care for his body, with Mary he moves towards a more balanced way to understand and approach the wholeness of his own being. Mary, with her obvious symbolic links to the Mother of Our Lord, is a figure of grace, but for Toller, she is also a catalyst for temptation. The fact that Toller’s dead son bears the name of Joseph lends overtones of ominous Freudian confusion to their burgeoning relationship, and the undercurrent of romantic attraction between the two threatens both Toller’s priestly vocation and his tortured sense of himself as someone who, in his words, is “not made for [love]” – an ironic thing to say for a priest whose religion teaches that love is precisely what man was made for. Perhaps it is because Toller is unable to love Mary in his own name that he seems unconsciously driven to adopt the role of her deceased husband, adopting his beliefs, slowly accumulating his possessions, and ultimately considering consummating his suicidal mission. Toller diagnoses pride as the root of despair when speaking to Michael, but is blind to his own narcissism. “When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy,” he journals, but First Reformed suggests that his obsessive self-flagellation is only another form of extreme self-focus; by isolating himself, Toller paradoxically becomes porous. “Michael cared about this world,” he eulogizes, “Perhaps too much.” But when he looks at pictures depicting the effects of climate change on the planet, he tells his diary, “I can no longer ignore my health” – a juxtaposition conflating his own body with that of the world at large. Driven by unacknowledged anger, thirsting for immediate action, Toller sees himself as everything and nothing. He abases himself, but is still trapped within himself. “Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?” sings the choir at Michael’s funeral – a call to action for a man who, sharing Travis Bickle’s savior complex, is the center of his own cosmos. “Somebody has to do something!” he cries to Jeffers in desperation, but “somebody” in this case turns out to be none other than “me.” It is no wonder that Toller despairs; in his mind, it is his responsibility alone to solve the problem. His egotism masquerades as activism.
Just as Michael’s name marked him as a harbinger of the end times, Toller’s name suggests the apocalyptic tolling of a bell. Yet his first name, Ernst, connotes earnestness, sincerity – an ironic choice for a man who so carefully hides behind a mask. Indeed, for most of First Reformed’s runtime, we do not know Toller’s Christian name, and when it is finally revealed and said aloud, perhaps he is finally being acknowledged as himself. The film’s final moments, then, are not a vague vision of togetherness in which distinctions between individuals disappear, though they are a vision of mysterious union, at once conflicting, beautiful, and maddeningly incomplete. If Toller is right to suggest that wisdom is the ability to hold two contradictory truths in one’s head simultaneously, perhaps the aim of First Reformed, in the end, is to make us a little wiser.