Tranquil masculinity is not part of Paul Schrader’s cinematic worldview. For over 40 years, anguished, alienated, fatalistic men have dominated his scripts and been front and center in films that bear his name. Quite often, this has worked out well, producing studies of masculinity, criminality, sexuality, mental illness, faith and violence that are quite shattering in their intensity. (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction and Auto Focus all leap to mind here.)
Like any artist, Schrader has not been without his share of duds; this is the same man who directed 2013’s The Canyons and the fourth turd Nicholas Cage made in 2014, The Dying of the Light. Yet he has always hit more than he has missed, and 2018’s First Reformed is no exception to that impressive trend. It represents (mostly) a powerful return to form for the writer/director.
In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a 46-year-old, former military chaplain who now works at First Reformed, a small chapel in upstate New York that is approaching its 250th anniversary. Toller has an ambiguous relationship to his faith, a chronic drinking habit and serious health issues that he basically ignores. By day, Toller shuffles about First Reformed and preaches to his dwindling flock. By night, he scribbles into a diary while downing glass after glass of the brown stuff in a way that would make Bukowski or Hemingway proud. His boozy chronicling feels appropriate considering the man’s tragic past, which includes a son who was killed in Iraq after he enlisted in the army upon Toller’s urging.
After one sparsely attended service, Toller is approached by Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried), a young, pregnant parishioner. Mary is concerned about her radical environmentalist husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who is depressed, volatile and advocating strongly for them to terminate their pregnancy due to the impending apocalypse posed by climate change. Toller reluctantly agrees to counsel the young tree hugger after being prodded by Mary, and their conversations with one another set Toller on a path of both self-discovery and self-destruction.
It is said that Schrader once wrote a draft of the script for Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which the legendary director immediately rejected, calling it “terribly guilt ridden.” For anyone who has seen a Schrader film or two, this is hardly a surprise; it is an adequate summation for the director’s entire canon – but I don’t mean that as an insult. While likely inappropriate for a film such as Close Encounters, Schrader’s searing depictions of guilt, and the way that guilt manifests itself in man’s relationship to the larger world, gives his corpus an intellectual energy – powering early works such as Raging Bull all the way up to this year’s First Reformed. It also acts as a conduit for examinations of the director’s other recurring themes.
Guilt is simply everywhere in First Reformed, deeply affecting the film’s characterizations and aesthetics. Set designer Nadya Gurevich and art director Raphael Sorcio create an austere, chilly and alienating world for the story’s character’s to inhabit, one that almost feels almost punitively self-imposed. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan frames many shots for maximum isolation, lingering on select moments in order to imbue an uncomfortable amount of weight, such as when Toller discovers an important letter.
The film’s performances are also critical to its rumination on guilt. Although occupying only a brief amount of screen time, Ettinger, whose face is hidden behind a wild tangle of unkempt beard, exudes a wounded sense of despair that is both pathetic and touching. As the pregnant, burdened but not entirely misanthropic Mary, Seyfried is one of the film’s few sources of light and hope. She gives a credible and human performance, despite the film occasionally trying to turn her into a vestibule for Toller’s redemption. Other supporting characters such as Cedric the Entertainer’s Pastor Jeffers and Victoria Hill’s Esther – who both work at an organization called Abundant Life Ministries, a moneyed mega-church that oversees Toller and First Reformed – are similarly strong, albeit less developed.
For as good as these performances are, however, it is Hawke’s Toller that the film circles around and through which its themes find their deepest expression. Brought to life beautifully with a deep well of emotion by the actor, Toller is fantastic study of a man drowning, one who is dying both spiritually and perhaps physically at the same time. Despite the extreme nature of the role, Hawke’s performance is remarkably nuanced, an implosive portrait of darkness creeping in from the edges that eschews much of the expected histrionics.
As mentioned above, First Reformed is a meditation on extreme guilt, and director Schrader uses this emotional state and Hawke’s Toller as a launching pad to explore other meaty themes. Toller becomes increasingly despairing throughout First Reformed regarding the fallen world in which he inhabits. He bristles in horror as he recognizes the sheer level of degradation present in not only the natural world but also in institutions like the church that are allegedly devoted to the supernatural. Like with Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta and Wade Whitehouse, Shrader expertly ties this noxious mixture of guilt and despair to a potential for violence, adding another statement to his career-long treatise on how men react destructively when confronted by both a threatening external world and an internal sense of impotence.
So much of First Reformed works that it’s sad to have to mention what doesn’t. Schrader’s script requires audiences to take on a massive suspension of disbelief, to swallow that Toller could plausibly undergo an extreme change in both worldview and behavior in a comically compressed time period. And while this somewhat mars the film’s ability to approach the echelon of Schrader’s earlier classics, it never proves so distracting that you disavow the film as a whole. The film builds naturally towards its final conclusion, evoking shades of Schrader’s past filmography while reaching for a level of ethereal spirituality that makes it stand definitively apart.
“Someone’s got to do something!” Toller cries in agony near the end of the film, capping off a painful decline into the heart of darkness. Such a line feels appropriate and cutting for our times, reflective of the sense of desperation many feel in the face of the moral, spiritual and cultural vacuum that has enveloped the country for the past two years. Toller’s guilt, rage and pure, unbridled panic channels our national zeitgeist. And the film that surrounds it is both a testament to the filmmakers’ craft and an uncomfortable reminder of the abhorrent malaise of our times.