by Andrew Wyatt on May 30, 2018

The fundamental paradox of films about religious faith – at least in the West – is that the outstanding examples of the form are so often the work of apostates, heretics, and nonbelievers. Filmmakers who fit these descriptors crafted some of the 20th century’s high-water marks in spiritual cinema: Diary of a Country Priest (1951) by Robert Bresson, a heterodox Catholic; The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman, a lapsed Lutheran; The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1961) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, an erstwhile Catholic; and the immortal The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Th. Dreyer, who was essentially irreligious (not Lutheran, as he is sometimes described). Not to be outdone, the 21st century has already produced two masterworks about faith. In their black comedy A Serious Man (2009), Joel and Ethan Coen drew on their Midwestern Jewish upbringing to create one of the greatest features ever made about theodicy, aka the Problem of Evil. Meanwhile, no less a lapsed Catholic than Martin Scorsese crafted the Jesuits-in-Japan epic Silence (2016), a staggeringly profound work about belief, doubt, and freedom that ranks among the director’s best films.

If there’s a biographical factor that tends to be associated with superlative religious cinema, it’s not present-day piety but, rather, the formative years spent in a community of faith. First Reformed, the harrowing new feature from writer-director Paul Schrader, is yet another compelling argument for this rule of thumb. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church – a Calvinist, confessional denomination – Schrader has been open about the potent, lasting influence of his religious upbringing on his work. (In fact, the future filmmaker was pre-seminary at Calvin College in his native Grand Rapids, Mich.) Schrader knows a thing or two about spiritual cinema, given that he literally wrote the book on it: His 1972 study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer remains a seminal work of film criticism.

However, even a filmgoer who didn’t know anything about Schrader’s early life might suspect that the director has Calvinist roots after witnessing First Reformed. It is the most ferociously Calvinist film Schrader has ever made, by an enormous margin, and not merely because its main character is a Calvinist minister. Schrader has grappled with matters of faith before in his work, most overtly in his screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ – even if said script was later reworked by director Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks. (It’s also strongly evident, funnily enough, in Schrader’s ill-fated horror feature Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist [2005].) However, Last Temptation’s anguished and faintly Gnostic vision of Jesus’ life has nothing on the austere suffering of First Reformed, a portrait of spiritual agony that veritably quakes with stifled, pleading despair.

Which is to say, Schrader’s film doesn’t exactly make for a fun, rollicking time at the movies. It is, however, an exquisitely haunting work, one that begins tightening its wintery, iron-knuckled grip on the viewer from its first, ominous shot. The film fades in from darkness on the looming façade of the tiny First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, N.Y., its white, wooden colonial lines as sharp as those of a parson’s starched collar. The lonely shepherd of this house of worship is the Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military chaplain whose son died in the 2003 Iraq War, a loss that subsequently rent the minister’s marriage asunder. When the film opens, the reverend explains in voice-over that he is beginning a diary (a nod to Bresson there) that he intends to keep for one year, recording the events of his day and his unedited thoughts, before finally burning it. First Reformed is thus a kind autobiographical confession, in the fashion of St. Augustine, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, and Schrader’s own screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).

Despondent and alcoholic, Toller is effectively in exile at First Reformed, a historical curiosity where the vanishing congregation consists of a mere dozen or so regular worshippers. The Sunday services are even less popular than the canned tours that the reverend is obliged to give to the church’s infrequent visitors, wherein he points out holes from Revolutionary War musket balls and a secret room from the days of the Underground Railroad. Operating under the ownership and doctrinal aegis of the megachurch down the road, Abundant Life, the drafty little chapel is derided by Toller’s fellow ministers as “the gift shop.” However, the seclusion this posting affords him seems to suit the dyspeptic Toller just fine. 

On his nightstand at the adjacent parish house are works by Merton, the Catholic theologian and Trappist monk whose promotion of self-discipline, contemplation, and social justice seem to resonate with Toller – even if he doesn’t appear to derive much inner peace from those ideals. The reverend is presently preoccupied with the 250th-anniversary celebrations for First Reformed. His garrulous superior at Abundant Life, the Rev. Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles), is determined to turn this event into a see-and-be-seen media circus for wealthy donors and local politicians. Besides the church’s leaky plumbing and broken organ, Toller is also contending with an unspecified, neglected illness, one that has him urinating blood and self-medicating with whiskey.

The Reverend doesn’t have much in the way of ministerial duties, given his vestigial congregation, but one day he is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a wide-eyed young woman who is expecting her first child. She is concerned about her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), a radical environmental activist who has lately slid into a neurotic depression about the state of the world – a descent triggered in part by the new life they are bringing into the world. At Mary’s urging, Toller pays the couple a visit, wherein the reverend attempts to soothe Michael’s anxieties about climate change and other emergent global catastrophes with platitudes about the necessity of hope. Unfortunately, the litany of looming disasters that Michael catalogs to the minister – with a matter-of-fact, suffocating sorrow that is somehow more unnerving than the ranting of a wild-eyed doomsayer – reverses the dynamic of the meeting. It is Toller who finds himself infected by Michael’s despair, precipitating a spiritual crisis for the reverend that spirals into some truly unimaginable and terrifying places.

Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan shoot First Reformed in the boxy 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio used in classic films. As in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the effect of this unconventional framing is atmospheric, creating a smothering aura of entrapment and doom. At risk of oversimplifying a convoluted system of religious thought, one of the defining features of Calvinist theology is its certitude in the predestined salvation of a select few (and, by extension, the damnation of the rest). In Schrader’s film, this doctrine is expressed in the hovering sensation of an ordained and inescapable fate. “I know that nothing can change,” Toller writes, “And I know that there is no hope.” No hope for Creation, for humanity, or for himself. The end is near, but in the reverend’s somber brand of Protestant belief, this is not cause for celebration. When it arrives – and it will, soon – Armageddon will not unfold in accordance with the cues of divine seals and trumpets, but due to humanity’s greed, neglect, and short-sightedness.

It would be inaccurate to describe Toller’s tribulations as a loss of faith. If anything, his faith burns too brightly, drowning him in visions of a divine creation that is under siege. The doubt he feels concerns his own role in the nascent conflict. Like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, Toller despairs that he “hasn’t done anything,” sinning by omission and thereby failing his son, his wife, the world, and God. When Mary and Michael come into his life, they energize him, albeit in a way that wracks him with guilt over his past lassitude and uselessness. With a kind of sweaty desperation, he vainly tries to assert himself at Abundant Life and with millionaire benefactors like Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a smug, alpha-male industrialist who’s footing the bill for First Reformed’s sestercentennial. Balq Industries, it turns out, is among the worst greenhouse-gas polluters on the planet, and kissing the ring of such a man is too much for Toller to bear. Everywhere, the reverend sees signs and omens: a dead rabbit caught in a snarl of barbed wire, an inexplicable nocturnal brawl on a vacant lot, a toppled tombstone in the church’s graveyard.

Schrader’s film is an astonishingly powerful evocation of a distinct stripe of Protestant torment: a certainty that every human thought and action is irrevocably polluted – the pervasive “total depravity” of original sin – and that no human being is capable of abolishing that taint through their own action. In Mary’s Madonna-like purity, Toller sees a potential refutation of this doctrine, and it’s telling that the film’s main gesture of magical realism is associated with both her beatific presence and a distinctly non-Calvinist sort of shamanistic mysticism. (Said scene is also one of the film’s few miscalculations, coming off as slightly hokey and counterproductive to First Reformed’s terrifically severe atmosphere.) Mary might be the reverend's pole star, but it’s Michael’s path that tugs at Toller’s soul, whispering to him that the stakes are too high for half-measures. The imminent anarchy and incalculable death that the planet faces demand a sacrifice far beyond an afternoon spent ladling soup at the local homeless shelter.

Hawke is in virtually every scene of the film, and his performance is undeniably searing, yet also pitiful and quietly frantic in a way that puts the viewer perpetually on edge. When called on, the actor can exhibit the sort of range that any talented, veteran performer eventually cultivates, but in this feature, it’s his more singular qualities that make him essential. In films such as Dead Poets Society (1989), Alive (1993) and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), Hawke projects a unique sort of strangled volatility, like a rope that’s been twisted the wrong way until it’s a snarl of groaning, pent-up energy. In First Reformed, this is Hawke’s overriding mode, and it’s never been more effective. He allows the weariness of his own 47 years to exude from Toller’s gestures and expressions, looking every inch a “sinner, poor and wretched,” in the words of 18th-century Calvinist hymnist Joseph Hart.

It’s clear that Toller’s story is slouching towards an inevitable detonation, but one of the marvels of First Reformed is that the specific, twisting path that the story takes remains consistently unpredictable right up to the film’s enigmatic, ambiguous conclusion. Schrader has long evinced a fascination with the inward-facing drama of solitary “men in rooms.” In features such as American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), Affliction (1997), and The Walker (2007), his less-than-admirable protagonists are hemmed in by crooks, killers, and corrupt authorities. For Schrader, however, the crime-thriller plot elements in each of these films are secondary to the psychological turmoil of the anti-hero, who typically finds his self-conception suddenly thrown into disarray by upheavels in his environment.

Toller is, in a sense, the YouTube-era incarnation of this figure, a man whose plummet into darkness is precipitated as much by omnipresent reminders of global despoilment and pandemonium as by his own pitiable circumstances. Like the knight Antonius in The Seventh Seal, the reverend looks around and sees – from Fukushima to Flint, Mich. – only “preposterous horror.” The only righteous path that leads out of this earthly Hell would have seemed like madness to Toller not long ago, but now it feels unavoidable, a martyr’s destiny decreed by God at the time of Creation. Schrader’s peerless conjuration of this dire sensibility is a wonder to behold. Although it doesn’t quite supplant the director’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) in terms of sheer artistic majesty, it’s undeniably a thematic culmination for the filmmaker, an impeccably realized vision of Christian angst to stand alongside those of his cinematic forebears.

Rating: A-