What makes a man start fires? What if that person were a man of God? Paul Schrader, now 71, has perhaps spent his entire career as a filmmaker attempting to ask that question, to breach the impenetrable truth of whatever that question’s answer could be, beginning with Blue Collar, a story of auto workers and union members in Detroit compromising their values to survive in the shadow of forces too large and too immovable to compromise themselves. With First Reformed, Schrader’s 20th feature as director, that question absorbs the whole film—not through cries of nihilism, as in his previous, garbage Dog Eat Dog, but as a sustained act of faith: What must the devout do for a world God has abandoned?
The question lingers wetly in Ethan Hawke’s eyes as he carries every frame of Schrader’s film. Playing Father Ernst Toller—a minister who in a former life had a wife and a son and a military career, an end brought to all three by that son’s death in Iraq—Hawke has spent the past 20 or so years sublimating the radical tendencies of his iconic slackerdom into a fiercely simmering anxiety, as if the purposelessness of his past malaise has left him stewing on how little he can or could do to change anything in this world. Who better to be a minister ineffectually shepherding a tiny, practically non-existent congregation than Hawke, a symbol of outrage gone to pasture?
Toller serves the titular First Reformed, a historic landmark in upstate New York attended by a scant congregation, surviving through gift shop sales and the patronage of Abundant Life Ministries, the megachurch conglomerate down the road led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, beautifully convincing, a kind-hearted con-man who knows what kind of money he’s into). Concerned but busy, Jeffers makes time for and listens to Toller regarding the small historic property’s exigencies, but Jeffers has bigger whales to harpoon, especially when it comes to keeping First Reformed open. In this case, that means the church is celebrating a big anniversary, and the corporate sponsors, manifest in Epic Capitalist Douche Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), must be appeased.
Meanwhile, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant First Reformed parishioner, approaches Toller about counseling her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), who Mary believes is, to put it lightly, losing his faith. In one of Schrader’s many tightly scripted scenes, Toller attempts to alleviate Michael’s burden, listening to the young soon-to-be-father lament bringing a new child into such a damaged, doomed world. An environmental activist possessed of fierce vision, Michael debates the responsibility of pressuring the Earth with new life, while Toller impresses Michael with the responsibility of fostering new life to take care of the same Earth.
Their dialogue bears no overly heady religious philosophy, yet Schrader limns every word with an abundance of meaning, as if the two men talking convey specific worldviews to one another before they understand what they’re talking about themselves, together building a looming sense of dread by simply alluding to the inevitable, to the notion that talk only staves off the reality of action while simultaneously committing us to the same. Michael relaying to Toller the tragedies of climate change doesn’t alter the course of history, or steer Michael away from the personal tragedy to come, but he does plant in Toller the seed of change, leaving the priest to become more and more consumed by what grows within him, even though Toller knows that the life to which he’s vowed struggles with so many painful truths.
Like in Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson one of Schrader’s most obvious, admitted influences), Toller’s diary, in which he chronicles his spiritual bellicosity, frames the film within that contradiction, between Toller’s institutional faith and his secular desperation, by consistently drawing lines between words and actions. It’s a very Christian notion; Jesus, after all, is described as the Word made flesh. An alcoholic neglecting what Schrader slowly reveals to be a serious, life-threatening medical issue, Toller scribbles furiously, but with a regimented care, into his diary, informing the audience via voiceover that this is an experiment, and that once his experiment concludes, the pages of what he’s written will be destroyed. During Toller’s first sermon earlier in the film, he orates with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Literally, the quote defines Toller’s story, especially when his increasingly environmental radicalism butts against the realization that Edward Bulq’s massive corporation leads the world in environmental devastation. As the pastor at First Reformed, surviving off the funds of Abundant Life, to continue in his vocation is to be complicit with Balq’s evil. But metaphorically, Toller represents the crisis of faith that exists in every faithful person: Humanity contradicts righteousness, but we try to be righteous anyway, even though every time we try and fail our faith in such faithfulness erodes until there’s little left to believe in at all.
Hawke, of course, haunts every single moment of First Reformed, so gentle that his brief outbursts seemingly foretell apocalypse, and so troubled that his saving feels futile. As his foil, and ultimate confidant, though, Amanda Seyfried transcends the symbolic trappings of Mary (natch), never quite devolving into the archetypal widow without dehumanizing the emotional heft she’s tasked to bear. Overall, she reads as heartbreakingly honest, so that when Schrader pulls a stylistic flourish late in the second act—launching Toller and Mary on an unexpected living room vision quest—we’re enthralled. Mary has brought us to the point because her words, however trivial compared to her husband’s ecological diatribes, bear the unmitigated weight of action.
Throughout, Schrader’s austerity marvels at the ordinary, his shots showing symptoms of “slow cinema” though hardly plodding or inaccessible. Not only does First Reformed directly butt heads with Schrader’s previous Dog Eat Dog, an exhausting shitshow of gratuitous mayhem—in a bad way—but it indulges melodrama without losing its calm. It works in obvious metaphors not for their own sakes, but as seamless extensions of theme. It’s a gorgeous film, mourning the impossibility of being alive as it celebrates that which binds us, a conscious-rattling, viscera-stirring piece of art. And ultimately, it’s a shocking film, powerful images gripping even more powerful fires within the bodies of those unequipped, as we all are, to put them out.
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger
Release Date: May 18, 2018 (limited); June 1, 2018 (wide)
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.