In a cinematically intense and sometimes overbearing film, devout Calvinist writer and director Paul Schrader’s (American Gigolo, Taxi Driver) First Reformed explores the lives of a former military chaplain, wrecked by grief over the death of his son, and a pregnant woman widowed after her radical environmentalist husband commits suicide. While they may seem worlds apart, their abiding faith in Jesus and attachment to a small church brings the two wounded souls together in a story filled with angst, religion and overwhelming concern for the geopolitical climate, especially with its environmental themes and the effects current events might have on our world in the foreseeable future.
A fairly slow moving dramatic piece, First Reformed is an obvious labor of love for Schrader, who allows his characters time to develop, giving the audience long takes of each actor as though studying them with each scene and in every word they utter. The over-the-top religious and environmental messages that seem to smack you in the face make it easy to miss the small, subtle and yet very effective nuances that Schrader gives the viewer through the eyes and performances of the actors.
Ethan Hawke (24 Hours To Live, The Magnificent Seven) beautifully portrays the role of Toller, the distraught chaplain who turns to alcohol as a way of escaping reality, because as much as he would like Jesus to be enough, it becomes abundantly clear that his faith is shaken and continues to waiver, despite his occupation and inspired sermons. Amanda Seyfreid plays Mary, the pregnant woman who loses her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger, Indignation, Compliance) to suicide and must reconcile with her situation. Deep in grief, she turns to Toller to fill in the void that her husband has left behind.
Though the chaplain can never be a true substitute for her husband, there are moments when she can close her eyes and imagine that he is still there with her. In a way this film is like a love story, within a love story, within a love story as you have the love of a wife for her husband, the love of a woman for the man who helps her grieve her husband, and the love they both share for God.
While the editing may be a bit slow, and the scenes a bit too long, for those able to slow down for a few hours and really take in the story, the characters, and the meanings they bring with them, First Reformed is a tale that’s been told before and will be told again and again; one that’s essentially about redemption and the power that love, faith and hope can bring to a single mother and a severely depressed Man of God.
More than anything, this is a film that ponders many questions, not just about politics and our environment, but spiritual ones that might make a viewer think about long after the credits have rolled. One question I’m still pondering hours later is: Where is God’s voice in this world?
So many of us live and die by the word of the Bible, which is filled with messages from God, His Angels, Apostles, and the like. But while these events took place long ago, is it really possible their underlying message have faded simply because of the passing of time? Or perhaps, it’s because we’ve just stopped listening? This film is not meant for those who like fast-paced action thrillers and horrors. No, Schrader obviously brought this story to the screen for those who haven’t succumbed to the quickness and jadedness of social media, smart phones and big city, fast living. He even makes a point to share that with the audience by the flip phone that Toller uses in the film, a clear nod to the way things used to be, or perhaps, the way Schrader would still like them to be.
There are a few inconsistencies that audiences are sure to notice, probably due to poor editing. I also wasn’t a big fan of the ending, as it came abruptly with no real conclusion, almost as though the tape ran out, and it went to black and then the credits rolled.
Aside from that First Reformed is definitely a Christian movie, and those of faith and/or those who are passionate about saving and preserving the environment will find it a necessary and pertinent film for our time. But as someone who isn’t neither a Christian nor a radical environmentalist (though I do care very much about this world and its creatures), I still found myself relating to the characters and their struggles, especially their questions that in many ways mirror the very dilemmas and questions that we as viewers ask our loved ones and ourselves every day.