Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?
First Reformed is written and directed by iconoclast Paul Schrader, now in his seventies but still wrestling with the weighty themes that defined his work with Martin Scorsese in the seventies and eighties in movies like Taxi Driver & The Last Temptation of Christ. Ethan Hawke plays a weary pastor in this beautifully shot, deeply provocative film. When he’s asked to counsel a deeply depressed young man, Reverend Toller finds that, rather than helping the man toward the light, he is himself being infected by the young man’s existential despair. Haunted by the nagging question of what might happen when mankind finally goes to far for even God’s grace to reach, struggling with physical ailments, watching as his small congregation is siphoned off to the fancy megachurch down the road, guilt-ridden by a recent moral failing . . . Toller is ripe for a crisis of faith and that’s exactly what he has.
Schrader’s really fashioned an amazing film here, one of the most deeply thoughtful and rigorous American films I’ve seen in ages. Hawke is truly astonishing here, career best in my opinion; he finds a weary fragility in Toller and an air of oppression and sadness. It’s not a performance I would have expected from him, actually. Philip Ettinger is really excellent as Mark, the young man Toller sets out to counsel. Amanda Seyfried, an actress I’ve never particularly cared for, is quite good, as good as she’s been, I’d say, though that isn’t exactly to say she deserves an Oscar or anything. Cedric the Entertainer, of all people, is absolutely wonderful as the pastor of the local megachurch. The character could be a very easy target, but Schrader’s script treats him like a human being and Cedric finds a compelling depth in the character as well. He even gets one of my favorite lines of the film, a spiritual insight Toller desperately needs but won’t accept because of the source.
Schrader’s getting at a lot. I mean, that’s understating it. He’s talking about the pollution of the environment, the infiltration of even the sacred by consumerism, the rejection of tradition in favor of the superficial, the utter lack of anything resembling spiritual reflection in modern culture, especially, it might seem, in the modern church. But at base the film is a rumination on one of the oldest themes of spirituality: faith vs. doubt. It’s a contest as old as faith itself (it’s worth remembering that Job is perhaps the oldest book in the Bible) but one that really speaks to me on a deep level. And in Toller Schrader and Hawke have crafted one of the most compelling characters in American cinema. I don’t want to talk too much about his character and how complicated it is, because there are beats here that you need to discover for yourself, beats that, after you think you know Toller down to his weary bones, surprise you, but also feel very apropos.
One last thing and then I’m done. I’ll simply say that, in my opinion, First Reformed is destined to be a timeless classic of spiritual longing; it’s a masterpiece beyond any question. And now, without spoiling anything, I do want to address the ending which is truly confounding. I can honestly say that, months after seeing this movie in the theater, I can remember vividly my emotions and thoughts at the moment of that ending and I can’t recall a movie ending that has effected me in quite the way this one did. And months after seeing the film, I can honestly say that I still don’t really know what to make of it. It’s baffling in a way that even very ambiguous endings aren’t. It’s been endlessly dissected online and, in fact, if you go to Google and type in “first reformed” the very first suggested search that pops up is “first reformed ending.” I’ve carefully avoided reading any of those dreaded “hot takes” frankly. I’m at the point now where I suppose I’ll either eventually get an epiphany of understanding or else never quite understand exactly what it all means. And maybe, that place between uncertainty and hope . . . is exactly where Schrader wants me. 4 stars.
tl;dr – beautifully written & performed masterpiece is a rumination on spirituality in a modern age & faith vs. doubt; beautiful, moving, thoughtful, confounding, a film for the ages. 4 stars.