Cinema has always held the power to be a product of its time — to be a stark reminder of the current social and sociopolitical climate, even when that reminder is buried under layers of plot details. Our collective fears, in particular, say a lot about us. So it should come as no surprise that Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, an amalgamation of some of our biggest fears of the 21st century, feels so visceral and raw that it absolutely takes your breath away. It may just be the film to see of 2018.
Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a pastor experiencing an extreme crisis of faith. He convinced his son to join the military, and when he’s subsequently killed in the Iraq War, the foundation of Toller’s world is shattered. When the movie starts, we meet him in the new phase of his life. He’s working at a church called First Reformed, where he gives sermons to the small handful of parishioners and then goes on to give tours of the church, which happens to be a historical tourist attraction. While watching these scenes, it’s easy to see why he’s lost. But the real catalyst for the story comes in the form of Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who approaches Toller about providing spiritual counseling for her troubled husband Michael (Philip Ettinger).
A radical environmentalist, Michael can’t conceive of bringing a child into a dying planet, and wants Mary to have an abortion. When Toller suggests that Mary and Michael go to the trained professionals at the nearby megachurch Abundant Life instead, Mary’s response is quick and to the point: “He doesn’t want to; he thinks it’s more of a company than a church.” But even after Toller agrees, his words fall of deaf ears.
Soon though, Toller himself starts internalizing Michael’s rhetoric. His hopelessness has been rebranded: Global Warming. There’s nothing worse than despair for despair’s sake, so Toller now has a cause to direct all the anger and inner violence toiling around inside him. As the viewer, we never get the sense that Toller is indeed an environmentalist, but it doesn’t matter: Michael’s cause is now his own.
Throughout the film, we’re given glimpses into just how far gone Toller is mentally and emotionally. He keeps a journal, which is frequently narrated via voiceover, where we hear his inner struggles – and mounting insanity – developing firsthand. If there’s any justice in the world, Ethan Hawke will be remembered come Oscar season. This is the role of his career, and he doesn’t hold back. In his subtle hands, Toller is a repressed ticking time bomb. He makes it clear that the character is unwell from the start, but midway through the film he starts his true transformation towards becoming First Reformed’s Travis Bickle.
Climate change, loss of faith, the commercialization of religion, and the apathy of our leaders are some of the main themes explored in First Reformed. On paper, it seems like a jumble of ideas; on screen, it’s pure grace – the work of one of Hollywood’s most renowned filmmakers at the very top of his game.
We were lucky enough to have Schrader in attendance at the 2018 Miami Film Festival back in March, where he participated in an extended conversation about his illustrious career and First Reformed. By the end of this film, there’s nothing you’ll want to do more than transport yourself back in time to that event. This is the kind of film that you’ll want to discuss for hours, dissecting the script and the meaning behind the ending, which very well may be one of the best and boldest last moments of any film this year.
In Toller’s mind, he needs to do something big, something that people can’t ignore. The word of the church be damned; this is a time for radical violence. It’s true that many of us share the same anger, frustration, and dwindling faith that he displays, but his thoughts take him to dark places we can’t condone.
That’s where Schrader comes in. In crafting the brilliant First Reformed, he’s made a film that’s big, angry and woke – one that those who see it can’t dispel from their brains. This is the cinematic equivalent of an explosion; a filmmaker’s act of rebellion. We may not be able to side with Toller, but Schrader – well he may just be our Messiah.
First Reformed opens at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater on June 8th. For more info, click here.