Written and Directed by: Paul Schrader
Sombre, historic, (potentially) creepy: these are all adjectives conjured in the opening scenes of First Reformed, starting with a still image of a Dutch-colonial church in modern Albany. Of course it’s hard to know exactly what ideas to associate with this setting. Does one think of the conservatism of small-town, white Christian America, or the progressivism of Northeasterners whose religious traditions trace back to those of English dissident-Christians fleeing persecution?
This tension provides an underlying foundation for First Reformed, the story of a the historic church’s minister, Toller (Ethan Hawke). Right away we are made to understand he is devout. Given the distinct political positions “Hollywood” and “Christianity” occupy in American society, this shapes our assumptions further. Soon thereafter, however, we discover Toller can in fact move between philosophical traditions, existing somewhere on the liberation theology spectrum. The contrast between this information and our initial assumptions (that he’s part of mainstream “Christian America”) goes on to feed the film’s plot.
I say all of this because the experience of watching First Reformed is one of seeing dichotomies played with. In addition to challenging the assumptions of many viewers about the relationship between “Christian” and “liberal/secular” America, First Reformed also juxtaposes: the past and the present/ future (most notably in a scene where a humourless hymnal choir sings a Neil Young song); the relationship between self-help and selflessness; the political and the apolitical; the folksy chapel and the megachurch (led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles)) and even popular understandings of Christianity in contrast to popular understanding of Islam.
Most important to this film, however, is its exploration of the dichotomy between the clergy and the layman. Toller’s life is gradually, but drastically altered after an encounter with Mary, a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband wants her to abort. At the outset of this plot we still expect Toller’s character to be a stereotypical American Christian: staunchly pro-life. His exact politics on abortion are never made clear, however, he does respond to the situation with sageness and authoritativeness.
The sageness never goes away. The authoritativeness doesn’t either, at least not in Toller’s eyes. The audience, by contrast, is gradually brought to see Toller’s vulnerabilities. The odd result of this is that as the film draws to its close, viewers are almost made to feel that they are watching an indie-drama about a young, hip millennial trying to get their life together, not the story of a 46 year-old Christian authority.
First Reformed is not a plotless movie. It develops its character, leading him to make a dramatic decision as the film approaches its climax. That said, because it is so focused on the idiosyncrasies of its protagonist, it nonetheless manages to resemble low-intensity films in the process. This rich, blend of cinematic-character, coupled with the film’s environmentalist politics, makes viewing it a very striking experience.
There are times when First Reformed goes beyond being an interesting piece of art. The film’s first environmentalist scene is near apocalyptic in its rhetoric (a feeling heightened by the story’s Christian foundations). It was a scene that gave me pause. Perhaps it was striking and different enough to indeed have political weight, or perhaps it would disturb viewers to the point of them wanting to pretend that climate change doesn’t exist. Either way, this intense feeling is toned down a little, as the film comes to be more about Toller’s persona.
First Reformed is a political movie that wants to provide answers, but is too pre-occupied with exploring contradictions to ultimately produce those answers (so the film is a contradiction itself). Disturbing, whimsical and directly ideological, it has the potential to be the kind of gospel that resonates in and beyond the pulpit.