Watching Paul Schrader’s spellbinding new film First Reformed, it’s impossible not to recall Schrader’s bone-chilling words from Taxi Driver: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
If Travis Bickle saw himself as a kind of avenging angel of 42nd Street, Schrader’s new protagonist trains his righteous fury on all of humanity. Taxi Driver was an emblem of the 1970s, and First Reformed is equally attuned to its time, astutely recognizing the end-of-days fundamentalist hysteria among climate-change obsessives. It’s an exacting film, substantial and suspenseful, one of the best of the year so far.
A rigorously restrained Ethan Hawke plays Toller, the pastor of First Reformed, a historic Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. Founded in 1767, the humble little place is being prepared for a 250th-anniversary reconsecration ceremony that will be attended by the governor and various community leaders. Toller has a tidy, limited life but his horizons are about to be expanded by a parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) who desperately needs his help. She is pregnant, but her husband wishes her to have an abortion. Her name is Mary.
Mary’s husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), is an environmental extremist who is in the thrall of a fantasy he is convinced is revealed truth, scientifically certified prophecy: that the planet will soon be a hellish wasteland upon which the living will envy the dead. He considers it morally unconscionable to bring a new life unto earth and have the child be subjected to ghastly suffering as global warming takes its inevitable gruesome toll. So convinced is Michael that man has already set in motion the events that will destroy our home that he considers it a duty to punish the wicked. We have proven ourselves unworthy of God’s creation and must pay the price, he believes.
Toller has his own sorrows to attend to. Once an Army chaplain, he lost his son in Iraq and in the grieving became estranged from his wife, Esther (Victoria Hill), with whom he works at a soup kitchen. His health is in jeopardy. He increasingly finds his only solace in a diary, and in the bottle. His concerns about Michael become intertwined with his thoughts about a nearby megachurch, pointedly named Abundant Life, whose pastor (Cedric Kyles, better known as the comic Cedric the Entertainer) preaches a meretricious brand of gospel built more around entertainment and materialism than grave contemplation of one’s sins. That Schrader himself grew up in a strict Calvinist household before embarking on a career in films saturated with sex and violence (American Gigolo, Auto Focus, etc.) lends the film a poignant confessional tone.
Toller draws a link between Abundant Life and what he comes to see as the depravities of the energy industry through Balq (Michael Gaston), the chief of an eponymous fossil-fuel firm that is one of the lead sponsors of both Abundant Life and the upcoming reconsecration of First Reformed. Balq’s firm, Toller discovers to his rage, is one of the leading polluters in the U.S.
Wavering confidence in Christianity, with its inherent modesty and deference to the unknowable, can pave the way for something more arrogant and darker.
First Reformed marries a Graham Greene quality of inner torment with a vividly contemporary understanding of how lost people turn to political activism and even extremism in a desperate move to fill the void in their souls. Layering the dire atmosphere of Biblical prophecy with progressive dogma about the fate of the earth and the tactics of Islamist fundamentalists, Schrader creates a parable that is eerily resonant with our moment. The film is not only unnerving but also grimly plausible.
By wandering off well-trodden cinematic territory, Schrader gets close to the essence of a defining conflict of our time, between the shallow pursuit of material gain on the one hand and a furious conviction that the greater our Western prosperity, the more severe the penalty to be paid. Toller’s friendship with Mary clarifies the stakes for him: life or annihilation. Remaining with his point of view throughout makes us understand why his outlook has turned bitter, but Schrader is wise enough also to illuminate his error: No man can presume to know the mind of God. Much wayward, destructive, and ultimately anti-human thinking begins here, and the relentless advance of secularism among previously Christian communities has much to do with it. Toller illustrates how wavering confidence in Christianity, with its inherent modesty and deference to the unknowable, can pave the way for something more arrogant and darker. Impatient about the progress of God’s plans, we substitute our own, then demand that others bow down before our vision. It’s an old story brought vividly up to the minute: Beware of those who wish to play God.