Writer-director Paul Schrader has always focused on self-destructive characters whether it’s his scripts for Scorsese classics “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” or his directed films like “American Gigolo” and “The Canyon.” “First Reformed” continues those themes with a stunningly vital story of the horrors of the current times.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor at the historic First Reformed church in upstate New York, an operating tourist location compared with the much larger Abundant Life church operated by Rev. Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) next door. When pregnant congregate Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to talk with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger) about his extreme environmental views, all of Toller’s past unravels into his present. His failed marriage, dead son and drinking manifests itself in a daily journal Toller keeps, revealing a tortured soul struggling to find meaning.
Schrader is dealing with very serious, elemental themes: religion, purpose, time, love, forgiveness. His Toller is a modern day Arthur Dimmesdale from “The Scarlett Letter”, unable to atone for his perceived sins and reconcile with the fragility of the world. It’s a very Christian story as one would expect from Schrader, and its power stems from the fact that it is so personal.
One might question Schrader’s ability to tackle such a story and such questions in just a two-hour period, but the film manages to pose his queries against the backdrop of knowledge we all carry; We all have stories of loss and love and though different they are similar because of their connection to the universal human experience. While we may not go to Toller’s lengths in questioning and evaluating life, we can empathize with a man trying to figure things out. By using his journal as a framing device, we are given access to Toller’s mind and process in a way that doesn’t feel too forced. We are also introduced to a ticking clock as it is, the decision of suicide bombing weighing on his mind and keeping us at the edge of our seats as we wonder if Toller could carry out such an action and if we too could go to such lengths.
The ending of the film is a tad ambiguous and time will tell as the viewer digests it how our impression of the film changes. What does it mean and does it constitute a fitting finale or a copout? How does our interpretation of it influence our opinion of “First Reformed”?
As I still digest that ending, I can say that the ambition of Schrader’s work is still nothing less than marvellous, a cinematic confessional of sorts whose poignancy is matched by its intimacy. In short, potentially a work of intimate genius or a mad exercise. Or both at the same time.