A priest of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past.
We need to talk about faith and doubt, humanity and spirituality, and anything that lies within those crosshairs. At one point in Paul Schrader’s film, someone is encouraged to value courage above reason. This is a film that does that by taking a quiet if daring leap into the unknown. It presents questions of faith that are rhetorical, and yet, somehow remains sermon-like at points. This is a film that takes a stroll on the darker yet also honest and investigative side of what it means to be a person of faith.In short, we need to talk about First Reformed. First, we must talk about what the film is not. Easily, audiences—and even others who have not yet seen the film—may be tempted to place the film into agenda-driven camps. It is not an environmentalist soundbite, trying to make a case for or against global warming. Nor is it a critique on the American church—not in its entirety, at least. First Reformed is about the constant personal and professional crises of self-proclaimed people of faith. All of this sounds like Schrader’s film is a puzzle box in identity, but really the cards are laid reasonably before us. Filmmakers have long been exploring big-picture themes of faith and doubt onscreen. First Reformed is the battle of the earthly and spiritual self, taking on the lens of reasonably relevant Christian writers like Thomas Merton. It finds the reverend of a small church in New York, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), half past his life and riddled with loss. With one decision to help the husband of one of his loyal churchgoers (Amanda Seyfried), Toller begins a search within himself, threatening to exclude him from the real world and its problems. If what Toller is doing and experiencing sounds vague, it is only because there is a certain ethereal mystery I want to preserve in Schrader’s storytelling. This is a film with the proposition to challenge, a morality play that invites both sympathy and apathy and ways that simply must be discussed with others. Aside from the philosophical scope of the film, Schrader’s direction is stoic and restrained, recollecting the deep isolation he captured so exquisitely writing Taxi Driver in 1976. And Hawke delivers one of his best performances. Pervading every scene in the film, he is asked to play both ying and yang within himself, and the dance as an actor is never short of astounding. This is, above all, a discussion-oriented film, not a family film. It does not receive a Dove-Approved Seal because of the intensity of the content. But if you’re up for a challenge, bring a friend who will want discuss this interesting film afterward.