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‘First Reformed’ Is One of the Best Films of the Year

Basking in the power and the glory (and the meditative pulp) of Paul Schrader’s brilliant preacher saga

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There are two churches in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. The one that gives the film its title is a spartan Dutch Colonial structure that has stood in a corner of upstate New York for a quarter of a millennium, serving parishioners since before the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Just down the road stands Abundant Life Ministries, a prosperous megachurch whose anodyne interiors look more like an executive-class airport lounge than a house of worship.

Instead of competing with their neighbors, Abundant Life’s proprietors encourage cooperation, subsidizing their neighbor’s modest operations. As its name suggests, Abundant Life has it all in the present tense, while First Reformed leans heavily on a sense of history, attracting more tourists than parishioners for Sunday services. First Reformed’s durability is deceiving; it stands by the grace of its patronage rather than God.

The contrasts between these buildings and what they represent—tradition versus modernity; discipline versus excess; God versus Mammon—are not hard to grasp. First Reformed is not the sort of movie that undersells its metaphors. It bets the house on them, gambling on the possibility that an old-fashioned morality play asking Big Questions about faith, activism, and the futility of trying to save the world will pay off in a moment when even serious American cinema—i.e. films unconcerned with Skywalkers or Infinity Stones—comes at least partially steeped in irony.

This is a film whose hero is a divorced priest, mourning the death of his son in Iraq. His flock includes a young pregnant woman whose environmentalist husband has advised her to get an abortion in light of widespread climate change. Pollution, consumerism, and corruption are ascendant. The priest drinks and imagines self-flagellation. The center cannot hold.

This scenario is serious almost to the point of silliness: It could be parody of a morality play. But the heaviness is also essential to the architecture and impact of what I’m thinking is the year’s first maybe-great American movie.

Paul Schrader is 71, which means he’s old enough to be an institution, one a little like First Reformed itself: long-standing but increasingly marginalized over the years. In the 1970s, Schrader ran with the Movie Brats—not only Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, for whom he wrote the scripts for Taxi Driver and Obsession in the same year, 1976, but also Steven Spielberg. The rumor was that Schrader also took a stab at writing Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but in his version, the aliens never showed up—an unrealized exercise in existentialism trumping special effects.

Asceticism comes naturally to Schrader, who was raised in a strict Calvinist household and didn’t start watching movies until he was 17. When Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle referred to himself in Taxi Driver as “God’s lonely man,” he wasn’t just indulging in sociopathic self-pity, he was defining a self-projected outsider archetype that would return time and again in Schrader’s scripts. He’s obsessed with obsessives and sympathizes with their quests, like Travis’s desire to rescue the teenage prostitute Iris from her pimp, or Jake Van Dorn’s desperate search for his daughter through the subculture of Los Angeles’s porn industry in Hardcore, which he also directed (both of these intense, unpleasant movies are made under the sign of The Searchers).

Generally, Schrader is fascinated by characters—almost always men— whose consciences are never quite scrubbed clean. He even had the guts to include a scene in the script for The Last Temptation of Christ where the Son of Man is seduced by a vision of a quiet normal life; this Jesus dies for our sins but not before identifying with them. For Schrader, the human condition is defined by the fear of not living up to a better standard, whether self-imposed or handed down from on high.

First Reformed is some of his best work. Its self-divided protagonist is Father Ernst Toller, an ex-military chaplain played in a performance of great subtlety and control by Ethan Hawke. Father Toller possesses a faith so devout that he nearly turns himself inside out trying to live up to it. As the film opens, he’s outwardly accepted both the marginality of his post and the loneliness of his newly unattached life, but his mild demeanor is a front. During one of his sermons, he paraphrases F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum about the sign of a fine mind being the ability to hold two competing ideas at the same time.

This acknowledgment of life’s non-binary complexities identifies Ernst as something more than a mouthpiece for scriptural platitudes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he has his shit together. In his case, the math is inverted: The sign of a troubled mind is that he can’t stop seeing both sides of every issue. It is because the priest can’t reconcile his sense of piety with the compromises of others that his soul is slowly splintering to pieces. His certainty that God is watching doesn’t bring comfort, but paralyzing despair.

The scenes of Hawke sitting in an insomniac trance, scrawling out his humble interior monologue as a longhand confession, are indebted to Robert Bresson’s 1951 masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest, and Bresson’s long, gloomy shadow hangs over this film as well as others in Schrader’s ouvre.

But, in the spirit of indulging two competing ideas at once, Schrader also has his sleazy, neon side, a fetish for pulpy twists and bloody violence. It’s a streak present in Taxi Driver and fully ascendent in recent efforts like The Canyons and the repulsive, compulsive crime flick Dog Eat Dog. Stylistically, First Reformed is shot and edited like an art movie, its look and tone aligned with the chilly minimalism of the “slow cinema” Schrader has theorized and canonized in his work as a critic. But it’s also pressurized like a thriller, built around a mounting sense of dread.

Explaining exactly how and why Ernst finds himself radicalized and planning a subversive campaign against Abundant Life and its commodified Christianity is difficult to do without recounting layers and layers of plot. First Reformed is made in a refined style but it’s shamelessly melodramatic at its core; like a preacher trying to win over a skeptical congregation, Schrader keeps piling on reasons that a man of peace would potentially resort to terrorism.

Counselling Mary (Amanda Seyfried) about her husband’s ultimatum regarding their unborn child, Ernst offers words of comfort that seem to drain his own life force, one syllable at a time. He simply doesn’t know what to tell her, and that fundamentally decent indecision, concerning not only the value of a human life but also its liability, spirals outwards beyond the frame. If global warming—a secular apocalypse—is real, what is the solution? Is it to passively accept the end of the world or to rage against the dying of the light? And if it’s the latter, is the best way to channel that defiance to create a life, or to take one? Either way, you’re playing God.

The casting of Hawke, now 25 years into his run as the relaxed face of Gen X slackerdom, as an avatar of middle-aged anxiety is brilliantly effective. He gives the impression at all times of an intelligent, empathetic man desperately repressing primal anger and bitterness. Hawke hasn’t been this tightly wound since Training Day. Ernst may be falling apart, but Hawke’s measured, anguished acting holds First Reformed together, and it has to, because Schrader, whose age and semi-exile from the studios have combined into a true give-no-fucks mandate, goes hard in the home stretch. One of the really wondrous things here is the way that the basic realism of Schrader’s style—the stark, natural lighting; slow, precise cutting; flat, cavernous sound design—gradually starts warping in sync with its protagonist’s consciousness. A late sequence where Ernst and the heavily pregnant Mary—a potentially redemptive figure whose name is not just a metaphor but a meta-five—imagine themselves on an airborne vision quest, floating over and through devastated landscapes, is the sort of wild, risky flourish that could easily be mistaken for a mistake.

It’s not. Their levitation lifts First Reformed out of its slow, heavy rhythm while simultaneously deepening its melancholy. Because this is a movie about a man who is prepared to make a grand gesture, even if it kills him, Schrader keeps upping the ante, including some shockingly visceral imagery near the climax and finale that’s the dramatic equivalent of a last-second Hail Mary (See what I did there?). I’ll admit that when I saw this movie for the first time I didn’t quite know how to take these moments. After some reflection, and a second viewing, it’s clear that the film’s mix of austerity and audacity is also its reason for being. First Reformed is filled with leaps of faith for its characters and also its director. I won’t say whether or not Father Toller makes it to the end in one piece, but Schrader sticks the landing.