Throughout a long and diverse career Paul Schrader has penned scripts for iconic films such as Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ alongside directing crime classics Blue Collar and American Gigolo. But in more recent years, Schrader has faced the toughest period in his career. His newest trio of films The Canyons, The Dying of the Light and Dog Eat Dog, all received largely negative reviews and little box office return. First Reformed feels like a culmination of all Schrader’s best work and sees the renowned writer-director return to form in the most spectacular fashion.
Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military chaplain, is minister of a Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York with an ever-dwindling congregation. The church itself has become more of a tourist attraction than a place of worship, having once given refuge to slaves navigating the Underground Railroad in the 19th century, Toller is reduced to providing guided tours and selling branded merchandise. Toller’s church is financially reliant on nearby megachurch Abundant Life who are planning a re-consecration ceremony to celebrate the church’s 250th anniversary.
Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of the few members of Toller’s congregation, is pregnant and requests Toller to speak to her troubled eco-activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). He wants Mary to have an abortion to prevent bringing a child into a world he believes is doomed to ecological disaster. Toller speaks to Michael and is exhilarated by their debate on environmental and theological matters but is unable to prevent Michael from committing suicide just a few days later. Toller has his own problems too, he’s scarred by the death of his son after he convinced him to enlist in the army, his marriage has fallen apart, and he has a serious health issue. Inspired by Michael’s passionate environmental concerns, Toller’s mind becomes increasingly unstable as he develops an eco-activism and attraction to Mary that is at odds with his faith. When Toller discovers a link between the Church’s main financial supporter and the pollution of the local environment, his growing activism takes a violent, radical turn.
Hawke is on career-best form here, expertly placing us into the headspace of an increasingly unstable mind through nuanced body language and intimate journal entries which act as the film’s voiceover. Hawke is utterly convincing as a melancholic priest whose internal conflicts and frustrations simmer beneath the surface. Comparisons with Travis Bickle are inevitable, and Hawke captures the same bubbling rage at society which made Taxi Driver so influential. First Reformed’s thematic richness is suited to reward repeat viewings and is sure to spark debate as it condemns the affiliation between big corporations and churches while providing a call to arms on climate change. The film’s union of ecological activism with spiritual turmoil is a daring, unique, thought-provoking interchange and it’s a joy to see these concepts unfurl inside the narrative.
Schrader’s direction and screenplay are just as stunningly controlled and elegant as Hawke’s performance. The film employs a beautifully measured slow-build pacing which allows us to take in the tranquil, grey-toned setting and engaging, insightful philosophical discussions between Toller and Michael. Schrader masterfully builds suspense to an ending that is at once baffling, delightfully ambiguous, gripping and moving. In First Reformed Schrader has created a provocative, mesmerising meditation on spiritual doubt and environmental crisis anchored by an incredible Ethan Hawke performance.