It’s never ideal when a film has an agenda and then proceeds to beat viewers over the head with it. Recent message-heavy movies include the highly overrated, 2004 Oscar-winning drama Crash and its ham-fisted handling of race relations, the 2011 satire God Bless America and its commentary on pop culture consumption, and the 2012 animated ecological cautionary tale Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Get too self-righteous, and don’t be surprised when moviegoers tune out.
So, it’s quite unexpected when a film as preachy as First Reformed comes along and finds a way to be an exception to the rule. It’s a haunting, strange and lyrical narrative on one man’s spiritual and political resurrection from the darkest corners of his consciousness. First Reformed brims with insights on anger, guilt, faith and personal autonomy.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader (American Gigolo), First Reformed is a return to form for the 71-year-old filmmaker after wading in the cinematic shallow end with his last few forgettable projects. Revisiting some of the more philosophical, character-driven elements of his early screenplay work, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, Schrader taps into another tormented soul. Toller (Ethan Hawke in a career-best performance) is the reverend of First Reformed, a small church in the fictional town of Snowbridge, New York.
Like his church, Toller is inconspicuous — delivering weekly sermons to his handful of parishioners and then retreating to his life of solitude where he spends his time drinking heavily and writing in a journal that he plans to destroy after a year. He is also preparing for the 250th anniversary of his church with help from a local megachurch that supports his ministry. Toller is called upon for spiritual guidance by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant young woman whose militant husband (Philip Ettinger) can’t stomach the idea of bringing a child into a world where climate change and disease are making the planet uninhabitable for future generations.
Without giving too much of the plot away, Toller finds himself taking on a de facto role as an activist while coming to terms with his tragic past and confronting the reality that men of faith, no matter how close to God they consider themselves to be, do not possess all the answers. Despite its decision to lay it on thick (Toller’s computer screensaver features a malnourished polar bear, for Christ’s sake), First Reformed is built to carry the burden of Schrader’s ambitious and inspired script, which includes a visceral final scene that will linger for weeks.