Some movies you know exactly where they’re going to go, and others take you to the places you least expect. The latter isn’t necessarily superior to the former, since it’s the journey that has to be satisfying to the audience, not just the destination.
“First Reformed” is an austere, bold picture that looks at the crisis of faith being experienced by Toller, a Protestant pastor played by Ethan Hawke. I was completely absorbed in the plight of this man of faith, and Hawke’s absolutely committed performance.
Religion is not a topic that films tackle regularly with anything resembling insight or sensitivity, so I was engrossed in what appeared to be a genuine attempt to do so by veteran writer/director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver,” “Affliction”).
Then the movie starting going off in some weird directions, progressing from off-putting to disturbing to shocking. Part of me resisted all the left turns. But I still found myself believing in the authenticity of Toller’s emotional and spiritual journey.
Toller is a former military chaplain whose life crumbled some years ago when his son joined the Army and died in Iraq, which also doomed his marriage. Now he’s the pastor of the titular church in Snowbridge, N.Y., a beautiful relic where almost nobody attends services. First Reformed is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller’s job is more caretaker of the facility than to flocks of the faithful.
He gives tours, sells T-shirts and hats, fixes leaky toilets, etc. Toller’s church is under the financial and ecumenical wing of Abundant Life, a nearby megachurch where Joel Jeffers (a surprisingly un-showy, effective Cedric the Entertainer) is pastor. Toller does a little volunteering there, since there aren’t really enough duties at First Reformed to fill his time, and checks in with Jeffers.
Jeffers isn’t an unkind man, but his relationship with Toller holds a lot of casual disdain. He refers to First Reformed as “the souvenir shop church” and treats Toller more as a wayward child than a pastoral partner. He expresses concern, which borders on impatience, for Toller’s recent health troubles and political/environmental leanings, which he worries will impinge on the big reconsecration celebration being financed by an energy tycoon (Michael Gaston).
“For you, every hour is the darkest hour,” Jeffers counsels/criticizes.
The truth is Toller seems to be on a downward path with no turning. As the story opens, he has decided to keep a daily journal of his thoughts, which he sees as a form of prayer to replace the traditional kind he undertakes less and less. He starts out with the resolution that he will do this for a year, then shred and burn the handwritten pages so that no one ever reads them.
What is going to happen in 12 months? We don’t know, but the self-imposed deadline doesn’t portend well.
Schrader presents us with a bleak but bountiful portrait of a man in crisis, whose religion is failing him even as he tries to be a good shepherd. The director gives us stark spaces in his frame, such as Toller’s residence nearly lacking in furniture, and fills them up with the turmoil of the soul.
The film reaches a crescendo when Toller is approached by a young married couple. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and worried about her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who’s become despondent about the lack of political movement on climate change, foreseeing the very end of mandkind. Here is a reason to be a real clergyman again.
Toller and Michael’s first counseling session is electric, in which Toller offers no sugar-coated reassurances or appropriate Bible quotations. He talks about his own struggles, and says that wisdom comes from having the ability to keep both despair and hope in your heart at the same time.
I’ll say no more about what follows, other than even as Toller reengages as a reverend, his own temptations toward depression loom ever larger.
Hanging around the edges is Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director at Abundant Life. She and Toller are friends, with hints at something more happening between them in the past. It’s clear she wants more, and he does not have that which she needs him to give. Their final encounter is utterly naked in its raw, devastating emotions.
“First Reformed” is not the movie I expected. But even though I know some people will be disturbed or even offended at what transpires, in many ways it’s a deeper, richer cinematic experience than I could have hoped for.