As his First Reformed church, famous for hiding slaves en route to Canada during the Civil War, approaches its 250th anniversary, Reverend Toller (Hawke) is overcome by a crisis of faith and so endeavours for one year to keep a brutally honest journal of his thoughts. This time of stark introspection isn’t helped when parishioner Mary (Seyfried) asks him to talk to her husband Michael (Ettinger): Mary is pregnant and Michael, haunted by the environmental crisis, doesn’t want to bring a child into this dying world. As Toller attempts to console Michael, the troubled man’s impassioned stance pushes Toller into action…
There’s a lot to unpack in Paul Schrader’s latest. The 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' scribe, who has raised in a strict Calvinist community, has always dipped a toe into faith, finding no answers to the big questions. 'First Reformed' sometimes feels like a spiritual successor to 'Taxi Driver', meticulously chipping away at and isolating its protagonist to drive him towards a cataclysmic action; the world is in trouble and something must be done about it, but there’s the possibility of a saving grace in a vulnerable woman.
Faith, organised religion and the hamstrung role of the church in real societal issues are to the fore here. Abundant Life, the popular church in the town (Albany, New York) and run by Cedric The Entertainer, is run “more like a business than a church”. Toller only talks to God “when it is possible… when God is listening.” The implication is that God sometimes doesn’t listen, but Schrader isn’t pointed in his themes, preferring to raise questions for the audience to answer.
In a character study that likes to peel the onion, Schrader unfolds important information at various moments, which cause one to stop and rethink everything else. Toller was once married but the marriage didn’t survive the death of their son. This info probably explains why he is short with choir director Esther (Victoria Hill), who turns out to be his ex-wife, and lends an air of sexual tension to the scenes with Seyfried. His health, not helped by his propensity to knock back a bottle or two while scribbling, is also failing. Toller lives an austere life in sparsely furnished rooms soundtracked by Lustmord’s dark ambient drones.
The third act is problematic. All the steady, slow burning tense stuff in the build-up is pushed to one side as the story stretches credibility and pushes Hawke into more showy moments. It’s a questionable left turn as up until then Hawke hadn’t been better. Schrader keeps his camera tight on his face, which gives the film a real intimate vibe, and allows one to appreciate Hawke’s nuanced, low-key performance. It’s all in the pauses.
But that’s a quibble. This is Schrader’s and Hawke’s best for quite some time.