Paul Schrader has had a reputation for weighty mainstream releases since penning the script for Taxi Driver in 1970. Since then his CV has been an eclectic barrage of hard-hitting tension trips, philosophical ruminations, and total flops across multiple genres. His latest film, First Reformed, is one of his finest, most challenging, features to date.
Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is dying of stomach cancer but won’t seek help, instead drinking in excess. His small deserted parish is only open due to historical significance and on the run-up to its lavish 250th reconsecration. After failing to console a nihilistic environmental activist, Toller finds himself torn between his responsibilities as a man of faith and his obligations as a human being, a conflict that will result in chaos.
It’s a bleak-looking film with more hope in its run time than you might expect. To get there though, you have to wade through the grim landscape of First Reformed’s stark near-dystopian reality.
Taxi Driver fans will notice flagrant similarities between Scorsese’s psychological thriller and First Reformed’s visceral soul-searching. Since Schrader penned Taxi Driver back in 1976 it’s not mad to assume he’s readdressing some of those ideas which plagued him in the 70s. Reverend Toller is a new age Travis Bickle: a devoutly religious but increasingly detached soldier of God. Where Bickle fought moral degradation and gentrification on the streets of New York, Toller confronts gentrification of faith and his own very human nature. Toller’s quietly growing despondency and desperation climb to a shocking, borderline batshit, climax that could be read in a multitude of ways.
Schrader isn’t ripping into personal faith though, if anything he’s posing a question about the institutes of faith and their role in the modern world. In the same way Taxi Driver’s climax confronts the viewer with thier own inaction, so does First a Reformed: it surprises in how it inspires guilt for inaction. In many ways you could read Toller as an uncompromisingly empathetic person who desperately swaps his own Hell for someone else’s. Toller’s realisation that global warming is a very real threat kicks down the door on his faltering faith. Rather than abandon God, Toller appears to embrace him harder and reject the human institution of faith in favour of the greater good. The result is a drastic barmy final act in which one man ponders where his responsibilities end in the mortal coil.
A pessimist could claim Schrader’s message is a daunting warning about the pitfalls of religious faith and how desperation will make jihadists of us all, but that would be to miss the point that desperation is different for every individual. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is gorgeous, but undeniably dour. For the most part the film shifts between depressingly empty white interiors and cold grey exteriors, only exploiting colour in a few crucial scenes. It’s a perfect tonal match for a film about spiritual crisis and global warming; the church’s white washed interior is a far-cry from the dingy pollution just outside. More often, First Reformed throws shade at powerhouse institutions of faith, rather than the relationship between man and God. Though simple and not particularly groundbreaking, it’s an important distinction in how we criticise faith and spirituality.
If it sounds dense it’s because it is. Schrader’s films have often brought a a bold avant garde element to mainstream films, and First Reformed is one of his headiest and most cohesive achievements to date. That same praise can be heaped on Hawke also, who delivers one of his finest, most nuanced performances in years.
At its core, First Reformed is a mix of philosophical quandary, spiritual thriller, and eco-horror; an arresting cocktail that’s far easier to swallow than Toller’s Pepto Bismol/Whiskey mixers.
Dir. Paul Schrader
Stars. Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Antonio Kyles