“I know that nothing can change, and I know there is no hope.” So says Ethan Hawke as the despairing Reverend Toller in the compelling drama, First Reformed. First Reformed, released theatrically in the first half of 2018, was written and directed by Paul Schrader, one of the essential voices of the New Hollywood era that began in the late 60’s. Even though it was his 22nd feature film, the 73-year-old is still best know for writing the screenplays of two Martin Scorcese masterpieces: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. With First Reformed, Schrader continued his tradition of exploring the psyche of desperate, angry men. But unlike his previous films, he embraced a particular kind of filmmaking that he calls “Transcendental.” It’s a style that’s languorous and observational, with an austere aesthetic that tries to keep us at an emotional distance so that we’ll engage with his film on a more critical and intellectual level.
At the center of First Reformed is Reverend Toller, a fifty-something shell of a man. Toller wanted his son and only child to continue the tradition of military service long held by his side of the family, only to be killed in Iraq. His death results in the ruin of Toller’s marriage, his health, and possibly his faith. Self-medicating with alcohol and unable to pray, he pours his thoughts into a journal, which in turn provides voiceover narration for the film. When a concerned wife, played with a casual naturalism by Amanda Seyfried, asks Toller to speak to her depressed husband, who may or may not be an eco-terrorist, it sets off a chain of events that leads the distraught Reverend down the path of an environmental crusade.
First Reformed gives a forceful voice to Schrader’s religious and political views. In one powerful scene, Toller desperately pleads to the leader of a corporate-funded mega-church who literally and symbolically turns his back on him when asked to reconsider the church’s neutral position on global warming. In another, he shows us a small group of school children out on a field trip composed of two black children, one Asian, one Hispanic, and only one white child, all led by an Asian-American teacher. It’s as if Schrader is saying to all the frightened, white conservatives of this country, “This is the future of America, so get used to it.” Parallels are drawn between the unwillingness of certain groups and organizations to recognize humankind’s role in environmental destruction and Toller’s own unwillingness to address the damaging effects of his alcoholism, suggesting that it’s in our nature to ignore warning signs as long as there isn’t an imminent threat. The overall arc of the film shows how despair can drive a person to embrace radical extremism.
It remains to be seen if First Reformed can reform any of those that are in denial of climate change. But regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, it’s a thought-provoking journey elevated by a career-high performance by Ethan Hawke. The deliberately ambiguous ending will either thrill you, as it did me, or leave you frustrated. Either way, it’s worth seeing, if for no other reason, to join the conversation it’s urgently trying to start. First Reformed is currently available for streaming on multiple platforms, including Kanopy and Amazon Prime.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.