“First Reformed” is gripping, courageous filmmaking that emphasizes the importance of hope by plunging you into the belly of hopelessness. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
Early in Paul Schrader’s provocative religious drama “First Reformed,” the Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) counsels a troubled parishioner that the human condition arises from our attempts to “hold hope and despair simultaneously.” The lies we tell ourselves to nurture hope are what come to define us; it’s the mental gymnastics of survival. But who are we when the lies are no longer believable?
Toller’s spiritual battle starts as a pang of doubt in his faith and ends as a full-blown existential crisis. He presides over a tiny congregation at the 250-year-old First Reformed Church, or, as the locals casually deride it, “The Souvenir Shop.” The cash-strapped Toller gives guided tours of the ancient church, encouraging bored tourists to purchase a hat or refrigerator magnet to commemorate their visit. His only companions are God and a bottomless pit of booze. It doesn’t take long to realize which companion holds more sway over his anguished conscience.
“If only I could pray,” Toller writes in his journal, a journal he vows to keep for one year and then destroy. One imagines it’s the latest in a long series of projects designed to keep Toller grinding through life.
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Schrader (writer of “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Taxi Driver”) has never shied away from spiritual conflict. Here, he wonders aloud through Toller how God could forgive a wretched species that destroyed its own planet. Schrader uses a compelling environmental argument to frame the inevitability of self-destruction, and the challenge of forgiving our own trespasses. It’s safe to say that ExxonMobil will not be sponsoring “First Reformed.”
Further challenging Toller’s faith is a fetching young parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her atheistic husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is a militant environmental activist who believes that humanity has run its course. Listening to Toller and Michael debate their positions — one of hope and one of despair — is like listening to two men argue about which brick wall is softer. Their hollow words, once integral to their self-identity, are little more than justifications for enduring their current misery.
“First Reformed” is gripping, courageous filmmaking that emphasizes the importance of hope by plunging you into the belly of hopelessness. You’re free to agree or disagree with Schrader’s confrontational approach, but his ideas and images will continue to haunt you.
★★★★ “First Reformed,” with Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer. Written and directed by Paul Schrader. 108 minutes. Rated R for some disturbing violent images. Multiple theaters.