Why isn’t the religious life easier?
This is the question written on the pained face of Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor of a historic church in upstate New York. A white beacon on a bucolic hill, Toller’s First Reformed receives more tourists than Sunday worshipers. Not that he can blame his flock for failing to show up, considering he’s hardly able to motivate himself to lead the services. He is, as the saying goes, enduring a crisis of faith. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer), the pastor of the nearby megachurch that benevolently keeps First Reformed afloat, tells Toller, “For you, every hour is the darkest hour.”
First Reformed’s Ernst Toller may be miserable, but he’s not alone. From the films of Robert Bresson to those of Ingmar Bergman (not to mention the American-specific, Reformed-influenced novels of Marilynne Robinson), the spiritual crises of the clergy have always made for rich, fictional fodder. Deserving mention alongside the works of those masters is First Reformed, which just might be the crowning achievement of its writer and director, Paul Schrader.
From his screenplays for Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) to his own directorial efforts (Hardcore), Schrader has long explored not only the religious impulse, but the particular difficulties that come with following it. For Schrader, the way of faith is not a blessing (as is promised by Jeffers’ thriving church, notably named Abundant Life). Rather, it’s something more akin to a curse. Yet it’s a curse he—or at least his films—can’t shake.
This is why Toller stays in his post at First Reformed, leading his sparsely attended services even if, in private, he can no longer pray (something he shares with the sickly title character of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest). Something holds him there; in some way he hopes to be of service. Then, one day, a pregnant woman in his congregation (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband, whose environmental activism has led him into deep depression over the degraded state of the earth. (Philip Ettinger, as the husband, is achingly vulnerable in the few moments he has.) Soon after, this new relationship takes a shocking turn, rousing Toller from spiritual lethargy to a faithful fanaticism.
That probably makes First Reformed sound more exciting, on a surface level, than it is. Formally, Schrader follows in the austere footsteps of Bresson and others like him, so that the movie feels like an act of cinematic asceticism. The soundtrack is muted, with some diegetic religious music but nothing like a traditional score; composer Brian Williams works more in unsettling scrapes and howls. The camera mostly remains fixed, particularly for interrogating, straight-ahead portrait shots that occasionally render Hawke, the film’s most familiar face, nearly unrecognizable. (Usually a chatterbox onscreen, Hawke gives a performance of remarkable quiet and economy.) Toller, though Protestant, wears a priest’s collar, and much of the movie itself seems to be aesthetically constricted, precisely in that place between its head and its heart.
For Schrader, the way of faith is not a blessing but something more akin to a curse.
As a result, in the few moments when Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan do move the camera, the technique has a forceful impact. Ironically, the movie opens this way, with a foreboding tracking shot up the front lawn of First Reformed, until the white building rises up against the dark sky like a looming monster. Later, while Toller is riding a bicycle (a nod to Country Priest’s famous motorcycle scene), the camera freely floats alongside him, even capturing a momentary smile. And then there are the shots of Toller driving down a suburban commercial district at night, the passing camera capturing neon signs and petty fights, echoing what is perhaps the most notorious of the Schrader-Scorsese collaborations: Taxi Driver.
Most of these moments serve to break up the (purposefully) mundane. Yet one bold sequence in First Reformed can be described as truly transcendent. I’d hate to give away the details, so instead I’ll only say that there is a sequence in which Toller gives himself over in an act of strange, impulsive service. The result is a metaphysical journey—filmed with touches echoing both Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—that brings Toller simultaneously to the edge of enlightenment and the mouth of madness. It’s partly a contemplative prayer (Christian mystic Thomas Merton is name-checked in the movie) and partly a seance.
As such, First Reformed manages to be ascetic, poetic, and prophetic. It’s at once centering, thrilling, and disturbing. Schrader is no preacher, so no one should come to First Reformed expecting orthodoxy. Indeed, there are moments when the movie seems to deliberately tweak doctrine. (Consider the excerpt from Toller’s journal we hear as he’s plunging a church toilet: “Discernment intersects with the Christian life at every moment.”) Yet perhaps First Reformed offers something as valuable as a theologically sound sermon. This is a confession of faith not as faith is often demanded, but as it’s experienced—especially in those nights when the living water gets stiff competition from Scotch and a shot of Pepto-Bismol (Toller’s preferred nightcap, which Schrader films in nauseating, mesmerizing closeup).
In this place, somewhere between assurance and atheism, First Reformed allows for doubt and belief, delight and despair. And in the process it offers an answer to the question I began with. Why isn’t the religious life easier? Because it is not a path to surety, but a way of living in mystery, of staring straight into that fixed, unblinking camera, while holding tightly onto whatever hope we have.