When it comes to Paul Schrader, I feel the argument can be made that he is the greatest American screenwriter. I know it’s a bold statement, but when you look over his credits that include Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, Hardcore, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and so many others, I feel there just isn’t anyone out there who can compete. Lately, though, he’s seemed to have had a difficult time recapturing that greatness. There has even been a part of me that has felt that perhaps I should give up on hoping he’ll crank out one more great film and simply appreciate the filmography he’s delivered us cinema fans over the years. Paul Schrader, despite having some classic titles to his name is still a writer and a director that isn’t for everyone. His films typically are dark in tone and typically shine a light onto the underbelly of society that most would prefer not to know about. It’s his fearlessness in tackling these subjects that has made me a fan of his for years, so when the opportunity to see First Reformed came along, I didn’t hesitate; this was a screening I couldn’t miss.
As the film opens, we get a long shot that pushes in to an old church; we quickly find out the church is named First Reformed. Inside we meet Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) as he is delivering a sermon to a very sparse crowd of parishioners. It doesn’t take long to realize that Toller is a damaged man, physically, emotionally and spiritually. We get insight into the Reverend’s thoughts through his journal entries that he writes and are narrated for us. Things get moving when Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Toller after a service and requests he speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), who she fears wants her to have an abortion.
When Toller meets with Michael, we discover that Michael is an activist who has given up on the future of the world and believes it is unfair to bring a child into a world where the planet is on the eve of destruction from mankind. What follows is a brilliantly written dialog exchange between the two men about faith, and things get pretty grim from this point on. What makes matters worse, later Mary reaches out to Toller again, only this time it’s to show him that she found a suicide vest that her husband had stashed away.
Toller is also busy with preparations for the 250-year anniversary of First Reformed Church. The church is given the nickname “the souvenir shop”, because it’s basically nothing more than a tourist stop that has a small gift shop, while thousands of members of the congregation prefer to attend the larger church ran by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer). Here is where we get to see Toller as a man who is clinging to traditions and his faith, while Jeffers treats the church as a business.
While Michael has lost his faith in his cause to attempt to save the planet, Toller continues to slide into despair as his faith and health continue to fail him. The more Toller gets to know about Michael and interacts with Mary, he seems to empathize more and more with the activist. When Toller discovers that a local businessman who is responsible for a lot of pollution is trying to control the 250th celebration, it seems to be too much for Toller.
This was a film that had people divided. On one end of the spectrum they were calling this the followup to Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, and then there was my side of the coin, where I saw this as more of a struggle about faith. While I can see where other people can take this as a jab at right-wing corporations and just attempting to inject fear about the pollution in the world, I simply saw something else. Sure, there is plenty of talk about the pollution in the world, but I saw this as nothing more than the perspective that Michael had and his struggle. I feel we needed to see Michael’s perspective in such an in-your-face manner that when he’s lost his faith in being an activist, him wanting a suicide vest was his form of wanting to be a martyr for his cause. Martyrdom does play a factor in this film, but it certainly takes a unique and grisly twist here.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best performances. It’s subtle and restrained, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he picks up a nomination for this performance. As for the rest of the film, I feel this is one of those divisive films that you’ll either love or hate, but however you feel, it will be a strong feeling about it. The discussion in the theater lobby about this film and hearing the varied feelings and expressions about what it meant is why I feel this film works. No one is having deep conversations about Deadpool 2 or Solo, but to be fair, First Reformed won’t be making that kind of box office, either.