“Can God forgive us?” is a question asked in various ways in writer-director Paul Schrader’s powerful new film First Reformed. It’s question first posed to Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) by anxious and worried parishioner that haunts the protagonist whose faith become shaken as he struggles to maintain control over his own life. The question doesn’t require an answer, but it’s one that lingers well after First Reformed has reached its conclusion.
Throughout his career, Paul Schrader has had impeccable sense when writing about solitary, disillusioned souls. His most famous tale of such a soul is Taxi Driver, and First Reformed in many regards parallels the events of the Martin Scorsese directed classic. But First Reformed isn’t simply the case of a writer rehashing his classics to regain the acclaim that may have faded away with time. Here is a story with its own moral examination of the modern era through the lonely and wounded soul of Reverend Toller, with Ethan Hawke delivering some of the best work of his career.
Reverend Toller is the pastor of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. The church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is tasked with overseeing various restorations to the church for a ceremony that will televised by its mega-church owner Abundant Life, run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, credited by his given name Cedric Kyles in this film).
When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, asks Reverend Toller to speak to her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), who is trying to talk her into an abortion. In their conversation, Michael first posits the question “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?” Michael’s concerns are about the ravaged environment and the increase global temperatures which could lead to cataclysmic events. He wonders how he could bring a child into this world. Reverend Toller tries his best to connect with the worried young man beyond the simple platitudes of “God has a plan.”
Doubt creeps into the mind of Reverend Toller and his mind ventures into some dark places as he keeps a diary of his thoughts. He also begins drinking heavily in secret. The question of environmental responsibility ravages the mind of the weary man of the cloth. While making preparations for the upcoming anniversary ceremony, Toller finds himself engaged in a fiery debate with Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), an industrialist whose company is a massive polluter but is also bankrolling the anniversary celebration.
While Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle saw himself as a needed savior, taking violent actions against the increasing filth and degradation he saw on the streets, Reverend Toller’s disillusionment is filled with a sense of helplessness, a man of faith losing that faith because of the actions of man. Toller looks at a planet in decay. Man’s arrogance destroying God’s creation. What action is justified in such a situation? The combination of alcohol and solitude pushes Toller’s mind to the fringes and the audience has to sit there, helpless as Toller himself, and watch a good man teeter on the brink of losing his righteous spirit.
Schrader’s script for First Reformed is full of righteous anger at the mess man has left for future generations but his direction is subtle and rather austere. Rarely does the camera move in the first half of the film. As the film progresses and Reverend Toller begins to lose his grip on the light within, the film becomes much more daring visually, including one stunning moment between Mary and the reverend. The similarities to Taxi Driver even appear in Schrader’s direction, especially when Toller pours Pepto-Bismol into his whiskey, the camera slowly zooming in on the unusual mixture in manner eerily reminiscent of Travis Bickle staring into a fizzing glass of Alka Seltzer.
First Reformed is a haunting, powerful work of drama from Paul Schrader. It’s vitally relevant to today’s world but has a quality that will endure. Schrader puts his character on a collision course between the promises of faith and tragic realities of world in environmental decay. First Reformed will endure as a fascinating companion piece to Taxi Driver, one impeccably crafted and acted film that challenges its characters and its audience. When it’s all said and done, you’ll be left asking yourself over and over and over – Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?