First Reformed is a powerful and intimate character study, channelling the dark energy of director Paul Schrader’s trademark work, Taxi Driver. Without Martin Scorsese at the helm, this is very much Schrader’s vision and one uniquely rooted in the anxieties of our modern times. The film closely follows tormented priest, Ernst Toller, in his desperate quest for spiritual redemption. Expertly played by Ethan Hawke, Father Toller’s soul-searching journey is bleak, dramatic and very human.
Father Toller is the minister of a small, historical and increasingly irrelevant church. An ex military chaplain, whose son died in the Iraq War, which he encouraged him to enlist in — and whose wife subsequently left him, Toller is alone. In lieu of an overt musical score, the film, is propped up by Toller’s uncompromising diary entries, illustrating his loss of faith. As if things couldn’t get any worse (and they do), Toller is also an alcoholic and displaying cancer-like symptoms. The plot kicks in when a young couple approaches Toller for his services. Mary the young wife (Biblical references are plenty, of course), played by Amanda Seyfried, is pregnant but her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) cannot bear to bring a baby into this world with such a hopeless future due to climate change. This leads to Toller agonising over the question — “Can God forgive us?” Schrader doesn’t answer this for us but he certainly highlights the moral implications of mankind’s immense environmental damage.
Toller’s personal struggle takes on the weight of this huge issue. Though Schrader pulls no punches in exploring the darkness, the film is never without, at least, the slightest shimmer of hope and a surprising amount of genuinely funny black comedy. There is also a transcendent section of the film that has to be seen to be believed — and appreciated.
Just as we’re all affected by climate change, First Reformed, is for far more than churchgoers, Greenpeace, Rialto and even regular film buffs.