Paul Schrader’s First Reformed comes before us freighted with expectations. At last, one of the living American greats (writer of Taxi Driver, co-writer of Raging Bull, director of Hardcore and Affliction) has returned to dissect The Ways We’re Going Mad Today, in a preacher drama so dead serious — so rigorously hair-shirted — that you might guess ahead of time that it’s shot in the boxy, old-fashioned Academy ratio. That asceticism is thematic: Our preacher, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) declares in voiceover in the first frames that he’s going to be keeping a journal — longhand, analog — for the next year of his life as the reverend of a 250-year-old wooden church with a congregation of about a dozen. He’s boxed in, you see, in a past he prefers to the world outside, and it’s only polite for viewers to meet him halfway by denying themselves the full use of our screens.
Reverend Toller tells us that his diary project will preserve each mistake, each thought he scratches out or reconsiders. Then, not long after that, he tells us he’ll eventually be destroying the notebook anyway. This is our first clue that, for all his sympathetic warmth, Hawke’s quiet, stoical preacher might be a few epistles short of a testament. But you aren't likely to dwell on that much at first, as Schrader quickly catches Toller up in the colloquy of a lifetime, one that is apt to seize and shake the souls of sympathetic viewers. After a typically uneventful Sunday service, Toller is invited by the portentously named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, to meet with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist in the grip of despair. His question: What right do he and Mary have to bring a child into a world that, according even to conservative forecast models, will soon be ravaged by climate change?
Their discussion is electric: part urgent therapy, part challenge to Toller’s beliefs, part wide-ranging divinity-school bull session, part seminar on carbon danger thresholds and upcoming refugee crises. Steeped in the current research, neither Michael nor Schrader exaggerates the terror that humanity faces, and it’s a breakthrough to see this discussed with such frank thoughtfulness. Toller, of course, must meet Michael’s facts with faith, with the belief that life itself remains sacred. He’s shaken by the exchange, but also in a way turned on: He spends the night afterward searching for better answers to Michael’s questions, eager to salve both the father-to-be’s uncertainties and his own.
Their follow-up meeting never quite happens. Instead, First Reformed becomes a sort of dialogue between a shaken, despairing Toller and the hardy Mary. Divorced, hard drinking, quick to shake off intimacy and refusing to get treatment for an affliction, Toller is free to dwell, like Michael, upon the hell we’ve unleashed on Earth. He’s losing his faith in his institution and all of our futures, but not in his God. Mary, meanwhile, doesn’t allow herself that luxury: With a child inside her, she shakes off existential dread and soldiers on, approaching life with a humility that the two men we see her with could benefit from. Both actors are excellent.
Schrader specializes in men whose minds get brought to a terrible boil by the world gone wrong around them. Here he conjures two of these figures, Michael and Toller. The final scenes are shocking, as you might expect. But I found them dutifully so, an answer to the problem of how to end a Paul Schrader movie rather than how to live with knowledge that we’re killing life itself. But I fully lost myself in the film leading up to them, in the sequences that find Toller trying to honor his understanding of Christ’s teachings with the fallen reality in which he’s trapped. His historic church is owned by the sprawling Abundant Life ministry, a monstrosity equal parts mall and stadium, boasting its own in-house TV network. Schrader engagingly offers a compare-and-contrast: The only amenities at Toller’s tiny First Reformed are a busted organ and a trap door where slaves used to hide in the Underground Railroad days. Toller can understand that mission, or Michael and Mary’s committed environmental activism. But at Abundant Life, asked to sit in on a youth-group discussion, Toller gets lectured by a firebrand young conservative on the sanctity of prosperity and strength: Jesus wants us rich rather than meek.
These scenes might sound pedantic. But let me say this, as someone who taught college English for years in the Kansas county with this country’s highest per capita rate of home-schooled students: Schrader’s Christian youth are not exaggerated. He and his cast resist satire in their depiction of mega-church life. Even Abundant Life’s pointedly optimistic Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles, comes across not as some con man or hypocrite. He plays the hits in his sermons, ignoring the world’s real troubles, but he believes in those hits, too. The crucial difference between him and Toller is that Jeffers has accepted the higher authority to whom he truly owes fealty: billionaire donor Edward Balq (Michael Gaston.)
Toller’s burgeoning interest in environmentalism — in understanding “dominion” over the Earth to include stewardship — inevitably draws the ire of Balq, whose factories happen to number among America’s most reckless polluters. The morality-tale obviousness of First Reformed’s plotting at times proves at odds with its sensitive detailing of its characters’ inner and spiritual lives. Sitting at a diner with the nuanced Jeffers and Toller, Balq may as well be wearing a sash emblazoned with “plutocrat.” But the conflicts Schrader exposes are too pressing, too raw, too obvious in their own right to demand subtlety. That makes First Reformed a fascinating work of almost mixed media: Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson meet outraged editorial cartooning meet the it-always-builds-to-violence pulp sensibility of the movie brats. The mix is volatile, enraging, entrancing.