Paul Schader’s 21st film as director is his most vital work since 1997’s AFFLICTION (though I do admire his somewhat wacky 2002 Bob Crane biopic, AUTO FOCUS). FIRST REFORMED tells the intense tale of Pastor Ernst Toller, a minister at a tourist church (historical because it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad) in upstate New York where he preaches sermons to pews with only four or five people.
Toller’s temple of the title is figuratively in the shadow of a megachurch that owns it, Abundant Life headed by celebrity preacher Pastor Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer, credited as Cedric Kyles). A young pregnant woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks out Toller in hope of having him counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who wants his wife to have an abortion because he can’t stand the idea of bringing a child into such a doomed world.
After their first discussion, in which we learn that the Pastor lost his son in the Iraq war and that destroyed his marriage, Toller researches what Michael is tormented by – the overwhelming scientific predictions of environmental disaster – and it triggers an existential crisis that gets worse the more glasses of whiskey he downs (he drinks more than his character in the 2012 horror film SINISTER, and that’s saying a lot), and comes to a horrible head when Michael commits suicide.
A 250th Anniversary celebration is being planned for Toller’s church, but Jeffers and one of Abundant Life’s corporate sponsors, represented by CEO Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) are concerned about the troubled chaplain after has his choir sing Neil Young’s Young’s pro-wildlife/anti-fracking anthem “Who’s Gunna Stand Up?” at Michael’s funeral.
Having found out that Balq is a climate change denier whose oil company is responsible for much of the area’s pollution, Toller plots a deadly end to the Anniversary event involving a suicide vest over his body wrapped in barbed wire.
From this description, I’m sure you can grasp that is a seriously dark and disturbing experience, but it’s a fascinating, immersive one as well that’s as watchable as it is unpleasant to process.
I originally wasn’t a fan of Hawke (his work in such films as DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and REALITY BITES didn’t rub me well), but he’s really grown into one of the most interesting actors of his generation. His work here is intricately stoic, but with instances of emotion (such as when he tells a woman, played by Victoria Hill, that he once had an affair with that he despises her), that can really get you in the gut.
FIRST REFORMED is the first movie in a long while that I want to read the screenplay of as it plays like a piece of literature in its thoughtful depiction of a complete crisis of fate.
The ending may baffle many audiences – it did a number on me – but it’s a profoundly powerful one. Many critics are comparing the film to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 landmark TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader wrote, a valid comparison for sure, as the films’ themes and tones are close in feeling. But Toller is a different kind of creature than Travis Bickle, created to reflect an even more dangerous world.
It’s impossible for Schrader’s incredible work here to make the same mark as that undeniable classic as the cinematic landscape is infinitely more cluttered, but I predict that in time, FIRST REFORMED will be considered as being in the same class.