For a lot of people, religion provides comfort in a world that seems hostile and capricious. Curiously, I had a friend who became a pastor, and he told me that he despite the fact that he had made a profession out of his faith, he sometimes got angry with God and even demanded that the Almighty justify why the universe seems so unfair and cruel. That said, he also told me his idea of Hell would be if God were simply a fantasy.
As I’ve gotten to know him, this struggle he’s had comes not from a wavering or weak devotion to God but a vibrant and active one. If he weren’t asking himself and God difficult questions, he probably wouldn’t do his congregation much good. He can’t answer their difficult queries if he hasn’t tried to ask them himself.
It’s this kind of struggle that makes writer-director Paul Schrader’s new movie First Reformed so rewarding. The screenwriter first came to prominence with the grim but engrossing Taxi Driver and has populated his movies like Affliction with tormented characters who make life difficult for themselves and others.
By combining this sort of personal struggle with his own Dutch Calvinist roots, Schrader takes what could have been a dry or even didactic dilemma and imbues First Reformed with a vitality and thoughtfulness that prevents it from being a sermon.
In the case of former military chaplain named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), his job has become infinitely harder when a young man named Michael (Philip Ettinger) asks to speak with him. Michael is an environmentalist who’s so committed to the cause that he’s gotten into legal trouble. This has led Michael to work menial jobs when he can get them.
“…finds the fate of the world so dire that he’s asked her to get an abortion.”
Michael isn’t merely frustrated. His efforts haven’t stopped any polluters or roused anyone else to stand up to them. Now that his wife Mary (nicely played by Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant, he finds the fate of the world so dire that he’s asked her to get an abortion.
Toller finds the idea repugnant, but not for any ideological reasons. Having lost his own son in the Iraq War, the pastor questions Michael’s reticence to bring a child into the world. Like a lot of other vets, Toller is furious about the outcome of the conflict and seems to almost envy Michael because the younger man has a chance to know his offspring better than ever Toller knew his own.
Trying to help Michael deal with his issues could challenge anyone, but Toller has the added burden of grief and repeatedly makes the mistake of self-medicating it. To exacerbate his struggle, Toller’s health is failing. It’s hard to come up with good advice when your body is falling apart on you.
Ironically, Toller has what on the surface seems to be an easy calling. First Reformed, his church, is more of a museum than an active place of worship. The attendance on Sunday is light, and Toller spends more time talking to school children than leading a flock.
First Reformed is also a branch of the much larger megachurch Abundant Life led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer). If Toller speaks to dozens on a good Sunday, Jeffers speaks to thousands and probably more online.
“…making Toller more flesh than spirit, Schrader and Hawke have made both seem more real…”
If Schrader has done anything with First Reformed, he’s given Kyles his best on-screen role to date and has written theological debates that are gripping to hear. Kyles has never been asked to be subtle before and ladles out restraint the same ease he has with outrageousness.
Kyles nails the cadences some pastors have, but he also displays a keen and practical mind. You don’t start and maintain a religious empire if all you can do is shout.
Jeffers usually speaks in bromides, while Toller offers a more personal ministry. When the two get into debates, Schrader gives each valid arguments, so the arguments don’t disintegrate into strawman assertions.
For his part, Hawke doesn’t play Toller as much as he lives with his character’s torment. Throughout the film, he looks presentable but pale and sickly. He and Schrader know that audiences won’t buy it if a hale-looking thespian vomits nasty discharges. While people with buff physiques do get sick, you can only take suspension of disbelief so far.
Hawke also projects a resolute quality that keeps Toller from coming off as wishy-washy. First Reformed was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, so as a pastor, Toller expects to make courageous and even unpleasant decisions.
Both Hawke and Schrader see Toller as flesh instead of marble, so when Toller behaves well or badly, it’s worth following his story. The clergy who preached abolition wasn’t any braver or more upright than people today. Some probably snuck a few drinks just as Toller does.
By making Toller more flesh than spirit, Schrader and Hawke have made both seem more real and compelling.
First Reformed (2017) Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger.
9 out of 10