First Reformed represents director Paul Schrader’s latest attempt to step back into the critically acclaimed arthouse fold, a world that has eluded him for some time. While he has been behind a number of critically successful screenplays – including Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Raging Bull – his directorial output is less beloved, though usually at least controversial. In recent years he fallen into sensationalism and at times outright misogyny, his film The Canyons receiving less than stellar marks for…well, for everything, but especially for its brutal treatment of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed is probably Schrader’s most mature and personal film, which must say something about a man who has been working as a director since the late seventies.
First Reformed follows Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a Protestant pastor at a small church in upstate New York, where he ministers to an increasingly tiny congregation and leads tours of the historic First Reformed, once a stop on the Underground Railroad. First Reformed is kept alive mostly as a tourist attraction and through funds from a nearby megachurch and its leader Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). Then Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of the parishioners, asks Toller to speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) about her pregnancy. Michael is an environmental activist recently out of prison who wants Mary to get an abortion rather than bring a new life onto a planet that’s dying. Michael’s despair precipitates Toller’s crisis of faith, pushing him further into depression and a dawning radicalism.
First Reformed aspires to be Taxi Driver by way of Diary of a Country Priest, but Schrader is neither the screenwriter he was in 1976, nor is he a director with the visual and aural sense of Bresson. What we get is a film steeped in austere visuals and religious iconography that nevertheless doesn’t make much narrative sense the longer it goes on, with images that go from fascinating to increasingly draining. Yes, Toller is having a steady breakdown, but the repetition of images, from his depressing room to his depressing church, do little to reveal any new meaning or depth to his characterization. He’s depressed over the state of the world and the state of religion – we get that, and the nature of the images reflects his inner experience. But where can he go from there? And do clergy usually have a single chair situated in an empty room to symbolize their angst?
As with the visuals, Schrader’s script inserts as many explicit biblical connotations as it possibly can into an otherwise slight narrative, presumably designed to emphasize for the audience that this is indeed a Very Serious Film About Faith. Yes, we do indeed have a pregnant mother named Mary (there is nothing else she could have possibly been named). But not to worry, the husband is not named Joseph, but Michael—he’s a warrior angel, you see—thus avoiding too blatant an allegory while also layering yet another biblical reference on top. Then there’s the Old Testament’s Esther (Victoria Hill), Toller’s friend and former lover, who fails to succeed in her aspiration to become Toller’s wife. Ernst Toller, meanwhile, possesses a surname that references both a bell-ringer and a toll collector. He is – ahem – an Earnest Bell-Ringer. If this all feels too on the nose, it’s because it is.
The film must rely on its examination of the inner life of a man of God and his personal and political religious debates. As Toller catalogues his feelings in his journal (more shades of Taxi Driver there), we are party to his slow decline into…not quite madness, but an increasing despair and Calvinistic apocalypticism with the basic question of “Where is God?” at its core. An interesting question, no doubt, certainly one that hasn’t been explored a great deal in contemporary filmmaking, but also not a particularly unique one. And that’s where the theological discussion begins and ends, with Toller’s increasing despair morphing into a directed radicalism that seems as fatalistic as it is predictable. While the film touches on some questions about environmentalism, the marketing of religion, and the interplay between the church and big business, it fails to really interrogate any of the questions it poses. Early in the story, Toller attempts to give Michael counsel as the latter spins out his environmental apocalypticism, and it’s this conversation that contains some of the most compelling theological debate. But there is little beyond that—the film expends itself too early, and then falls back on violence and rather banal desperation. While I don’t ask for an answer to all the questions, the least First Reformed could do is give me a more compelling debate.
First Reformed doesn’t do itself any favors by recalling, almost beat for beat, the substance of Taxi Driver, both in images—we see Toller regarding himself in a mirror as he suits up, we see him pouring booze into his cereal, we see him traveling through town as he gazes at the evil in the world—and in theme. This includes a narrative focalized entirely through its main character and his increasing radicalization, the use of female characters as dichotomous ciphers (without Taxi Driver’s nuanced exploration of the virgin/whore dichotomy), and the finding of a big villain (megachurches profiting from big companies with bad environmental records, in this case) to fuel its main character’s despair. Toller is a former military man, like Bickle, and, like Bickle, has difficulty adjusting to his life due to military trauma. But unlike Taxi Driver, which interrogated itself and the nuances of its main character’s psychosis, asking the audience to understand and to be horrified at the same time, First Reformed has no such interest in expanding beyond its very narrow confines. This is Bickle as hero and potential saint, Bickle as a true man of God. And while First Reformed doesn’t exactly copy its predecessor in final outcome, it also avoids dealing with any of the more contentious questions posed by Taxi Driver’s finale.
First Reformed ultimately plays as a personal religious polemic, one steeped in an existential despair over the world and God, that somehow manages to avoid even a remote sense of the spiritual. It is Schrader’s attempt at legitimacy, a film that might have some interesting questions at its root, but that requires a far more nuanced and introspective filmmaker to explore them. Hawke’s haunted performance is wasted in a film that demands nothing more spiritual than a vague religious angst. For a real exploration of American religious psychosis, skip First Reformed and just rewatch Taxi Driver. There is far more spirituality in Travis Bickle’s descent into hell than there is in Toller’s reclamation of heaven.
First Reformed is in theaters now.