Written and directed by Paul Schrader (who helmed films like American Gigolo, as well as co-writing Martin Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), the satirical religious drama First Reformed offers an intriguing take on the hypocrisies of the world through the lens of faith. It asks deep, insightful questions about what the role of clergy should be in social and political issues, the moral authority of men of the cloth, and about the depths of despair and grief. Some register better than others, and there are some truly odd moments, but there’s a lot to love here as well.
Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller, the pastor at a small, tourist trap church in rural upstate New York (my old stomping grounds!). He basically has no congregation other than a few locals. His days are spent giving tours and selling merchandise to random visitors (including school field trips), as his church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, with cellars to hide runaway slaves. He spends his nights writing in a journal, part of a year-long experiment to be more mindful and engaging in the community (Hawke narrates as he writes).
As the church approaches its 250th anniversary, Toller takes on the project of renewing the building for a reconsecration, orchestrated by a nearby megachurch which owns the property. The megachurch itself is funded by donations from a corporation that is a notoriously bad polluter. Despite all this, Toller has his own issues, as he searches for a purpose and place in society, as he still grieves from the death of his son, killed in action in Iraq. He feels responsible as he encouraged his son to enlist.
On top of everything else, Toller is torn by the temptation caused by the presence of one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), and Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director at the megachurch, with whom he’s had an affair. Mary’s pregnant with her first child with husband Michael. However, Michael has been dealing with some emotional problems and encourages Mary to abort the pregnancy, as he is a radical environmentalist, and doesn’t want to doom his child to a dying planet. Toller is placed into his latest crisis of conscience when Mary discovers Michael has a suicide vest, presumably to bomb the polluting company who is funding the First Reformed reconsecration. Meanwhile, Esther is trying to forge a legitimate relationship with him. Oh yeah, by the way, Toller has stomach cancer as well. So you know, everything’s coming up Milhouse!
Across the board, the performances are brilliant. Seyfried and Hill form a symbiotic dyad, a Yin and Yang for Toller’s attempts at love and intimacy. He craves the end of solitude (his first wife divorced him after their son’s death), but also pushes them away for vastly different reasons. The head of the megachurch, Pastor Jeffers, is played by Cedric the Entertainer, giving the best performance of his career, which you could tell right from the off because he’s credited under his real name, Cedric Antonio Kyles. He believes in the power of faith and community service, and suffers from the same moral ambiguity as Toller in dealing with the Balq corporation, led by its namesake CEO Ed Balq, played by an appropriately dismissive Michael Gaston.
But really, this is Hawke’s film, through and through, and he gives his finest performance since Boyhood, maybe even further back than that. The juxtaposition between his soft face as a man of the collar and the cynical griever searching for some logic or reason behind anything in his life is just brilliant, aided by Schrader’s dialogue and the bold decision to film the entire movie in 4:3 aspect ratio, meaning Toller is literally boxed in for the proceedings.
There is power in the satirical through line of the film, that everything is inherently corrupt, be it in the megachurch’s complacency in taking money from a polluter, to Toller’s selfish desire to help only to give himself comfort. I expect no less from the man who co-wrote The Last Temptation of Christ after all. Still, there are some spots that just miss the mark a bit. For example, Toller’s talks with Michael essentially convert him into radical environmentalist himself, willing to commit violence to stop those harming the planet, because he believes the Earth is God’s gift to mankind, and we sully His name by not protecting it.
That’s a good message on its surface, and a platform for the film’s repeated thematic quote, “Will God Forgive Us?” However, there’s only that extreme angle portrayed here. Mary says she’s more moderate and realistic, but we never see any actual evidence of that. All we get is Toller scanning environmentalist websites that label Balq as the #5 polluter in America, a darkly humorous funeral at a hazardous waste site on Balq property (complete with the church choir singing Neil Young’s “Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth”), and a self-serving tour guide at Balq’s factory talking about how much the company cares for the environment and “takes initiative” in conservation efforts. The rest is, “let’s blow the fuckers up!”
I get the satirical point, but it’s also quite cynical, especially when it’s not balanced out in the other facets. Like, it would be horrific, but equivalent thematically, if say Toller or Jeffers were hiding altar boys in the bunkers, but they don’t, cause it would be creepy as fuck and wholly inappropriate. So too is depicting the people trying to stop our planet from dying as terrorists and abortion-pushers.
There are also a couple of odd moments visually in the film, particularly a fantasy sequence where Mary lies on top of Toller and breathes on him until he hallucinates that the two of them are flying through mountains and space. It’s set up by Mary saying that she and Michael smoke pot and do it on occasion to calm themselves down, but Toller never gets high. He drinks throughout the film, but whiskey doesn’t lead to these kinds of visions, and there’s no establishment that Mary herself got stoned beforehand, and that her breathing on him is some form of contact high. Then of course there’s the very ambiguous ending, which is artistic, but mildly fucked up.
Still, there’s a lot of good to outweigh the not-so-good here, particularly the cinematography style, the dialogue, and the outstanding performances. Also, in what is sure to be an underrated – if not entirely overlooked – superlative aspect come Awards Season, there are two really good bits of makeup in the film. The first happens about midway through, when Toller discovers a dead body. The absolutely grotesque way the victim’s head has been blown out by a shotgun is graphically, and outstandingly displayed. Finally, donning his own crown of thorns, a truly lost Toller wraps his body in barbed wire, his chest and torso punctured and bleeding horribly. You can tell there’s a body suit over his actual frame, but it’s still spectacularly done.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Ethan Hawke role? How many more church films will there be this year? Let me know!