A24 (2018), 113 minutes
There’s a kernel of an interesting religious film in First Reformed, the new arthouse release from writer-director Paul Schrader (Mishima, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ). Unfortunately, it’s buried underneath the grim weight of the terrorist fantasy that Schrader really wants to explore.
The film stars Ethan Hawke as a tortured Protestant reverend slowly killing himself with alcohol and self-neglect. His manly grimacing may net him an Oscar; it’s the sort of intense, agonized performance that the Academy loves to reward. But is there something there? That is, are Schrader and Hawke getting at a truth about God or man by putting Reverend Ernst Toller through the wringer? Or are they mostly demonstrating how little spiritual insight there is to be gleaned from the vigilante antihero genre?
Early scenes lull us into a false hope. We get a glimpse into Toller’s life in a fascinating subdomain of Protestant Christendom. He’s the lonely pastor of a historic outpost church in upstate New York, a Dutch Reformed building purchased and preserved by a nondenominational megachurch called Abundant Life. Toller exists on the outskirts of Abundant Life, which has its own drama of youth groups, remote-streamed services, and deep-pocketed big-business donors. At First Reformed he preaches to a sparse flock and shows tourists around the landmark building, hawking hats from their sad gift shop. We see portraits of the previous pastors of First Reformed, and Toller’s immediate predecessors are wearing suits and ties. Toller himself is in clericals. Does he have more traditionalist leanings than the church he’s landed in? Or is he ruefully nodding to how the place makes him feel like a museum piece?
Toller is largely unpastored himself, partly by choice. We see Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life (Cedric the Entertainer, embracing a more serious persona) ask Toller about his physical and emotional health and get stonewalled. Toller lives in furniture-less austerity, perhaps as some kind of self-imposed penance for a past that includes a dead son and a broken marriage. He’s taken aback when a pregnant congregant named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her husband, who doesn’t want her to keep their baby. A man who sees little enough to live for in his own life is called, just by virtue of the collar he wears, to make the case for life. It’s an interestingly intimate narrative setup, grounded, in some ways, in the hypervisibility of religious life. Then it all gets blown to hell as we discover the true subject of the film. First Reformed is a movie about jihad.
I use the word “jihad” advisedly, as the film winkingly drops it as a clue early on. Pastor Jeffers tells Toller that online recruitment by jihadis is one of the dangers he worries the young people of his congregation are facing. In the moment, we’re meant to think Jeffers’s fears far-fetched. But Toller is the one being radicalized. Mary’s husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) is an environmentalist and would-be ecoterrorist, and his influence fires Toller with a purpose he hasn’t felt in years. “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to His creation?” becomes Toller’s catchphrase. Toller, in a body polluted by alcohol abuse and stomach cancer, seizes on environmental pollution as a holy casus belli. Schrader wants to transplant jihad, that contested concept from Islam that can mean spiritual struggle or the fiery annihilation of infidels, into the context of American Protestantism.
It’s not that there isn’t material out there for a religious drama about environmental stewardship. Pope Francis famously discussed the need for sustainable development and the dangers of pollution and climate change in his encyclical Laudato si’, which includes the oft-retweeted line, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” If a pastor became convinced his denomination was too beholden to wealthy polluters, what could he do? How do you cleanse the temple? Who can cast the first stone? But a film about this topic would have to take God and the earth seriously, rather than simply slouching towards a one-man Armageddon. First Reformed skims shallowly over theology and environmentalism, hoping to make up for it with the shock value of a reverend in a suicide vest.
The film tantalizes us with Biblical references: Toller’s dead son was named Joseph, the pregnant young woman in need of his help is Mary. But the real sacred text of the film is any given angry Facebook post about global warming. Toller’s radicalization comes about through some late-night Googling of “top polluters” and some cherry-picked Bible verses. On this flimsy reed the film builds a motivation for mass murder. No matter how hard Hawke glowers, it’s a tough pill to swallow. The film frames Toller as if we should be half-afraid and half-enamored of his self-destructive crusade. But I never bought it for a second. The film’s storytelling earns none of the trust it assumes. We are plunged into Toller’s unpleasant and untruthful perspective, but we gain no insight thereby. If the filmmakers want us to long for the subversive catharsis of a Sunday morning church-bombing, we need more than a few Saturday morning cartoon platitudes.
First Reformed boasts impressive cinematography, with a limited palette of white-washed churches and shadow-soaked rectories. The camera often holds still and frames a room like a stage set, with characters passing in and out of frame as they enter and exit the scene. The framing creates unease, as Schrader intended. And it drives home that Schrader thinks this is a morality play, albeit one with barely a virtue in sight. But the film’s biggest cinematic coup is calculated to create an unsatisfying cop-out. Schrader tinkered with the ending until it was sufficiently ambiguous that audiences didn’t know what Toller’s fate was. That’s a lot of work to create something as maddeningly cliché as an is-it-all-a-dying-dream ending.
The best scene of the movie sees Toller at loggerheads with Pastor Jeffers. The two debate environmental stewardship by shooting Bible citations back-and-forth. Pastor Jeffers takes God’s promise to Noah (“the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh”) to mean Toller’s worries about climate change are overblown. Toller answers back with his own interpretations. The tension between these men is not just about political differences but a crisis of exegetical authority. Jeffers gets in one more theologically meaty line here. “You’re always in the garden, aren’t you?” he says to Toller, referring to Jesus’s pre-Crucifixion agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Jeffers’s point is that a pastor can’t afford to make agonizing doubt his spiritual center. He’s obviously correct about that, but of course it’s only the agonized, wavering, and endlessly self-analytical pastors that filmmakers care about.
Leaving First Reformed, I was angry I’d been tricked into taking another dose of sophomoric sacrilege, like that which Schrader’s sometime collaborator Martin Scorsese showed us in Silence. Schrader, speaking to the New York Times, admitted First Reformed’s protagonist is not a portrait of a theist: “I don’t think Toller stands in any Christian tradition other than the existential one—this notion of Albert Camus’s: I don’t believe, I choose to believe.” Because what we really need is another artsy film about an explosive existentialist.
I for one am tired of the cinematic antihero pastor, and tired of filmmakers who assume that the most interesting thing about a man of faith is his doubt or despair. Like most American Christians, I am acquainted with members of the clergy, but I don’t recognize any of these people (in their vibrancy, their foibles, their humanity, and their holiness) onscreen. What I wouldn’t give for a bluegrass-scored film about the Hillbilly Thomists that took theology half as seriously as the friars themselves do. Or a drama film that sat with the dying alongside the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, giving screen time both to suffering and grace. Instead we get Travis Bickle in a clerical collar.
What holds First Reformed back from being a film that takes Christianity seriously, despite Schrader’s protestations to the contrary, is its Apocalypticism. The fate of Schrader’s universe once again comes down to a self-willed, manly moment of existential martyrdom. And yet any Christian versed in the rhythms of liturgy or the writings of the saints could tell him that’s a delusion. God calls us most often to slow and small and self-forgetful acts of service. Perhaps someday we’ll see American movies that combine Schrader’s meditative storytelling with an actual theological sensibility, like the 2016 French film The Innocents. Till then, filmgoers of faith are Charlie Brown, Hollywood is Lucy, and we keep kicking at the football of a spiritually serious film and finding ourselves flat on our backs.