“First Reformed” is the latest film written by Calvin graduate Paul Schrader. He is known for writing “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and two other films directed by Martin Scorsese. It is evident from Schrader’s filmography, especially his most recent film, that he is intimately familiar with the Reformed Church. His subject matter of past films has centered on the character of man and what man is capable of at his worst. It is ambiguous whether Schrader still claims his Christian faith, but his most recent film continues in his exploration of man’s ability for evil, hope and despair.
The film’s protagonist is a pastor at a small reformed church on the cusp of its 250th anniversary. The role is played by Ethan Hawke in what is arguably the best lead performance of the year. Hawke’s caliber as an actor shines through the difficult role of a pastor experiencing inner turmoil. Throughout the film, Hawke portrays the descent of a man that is eventually consumed by his inner demons and turmoil while attempting to appear calm to the outside world.
The visuals of the film are bleak and desolate. The first of many juxtapositions throughout the film is black against white. Toller, the pastor of First Reformed, is always wearing black, but the church he preaches in is almost entirely white inside and out. The film takes place during a desolate New York winter which reinforces the contrast between Toller’s dark tones and the white around him.
In the film, Schrader also offers a balanced meditation on the state of today’s church. He avoids outright condemning the church and Christianity but offers astute observations on where today’s church fails. The film juxtaposes First Reformed, a church with a congregation of less than 10 people, with Abundant Life, a mega-church.
Toller is accused of “always living in the garden,” a reference to when Jesus suffered in the garden of Gethsemane before dying on the cross. Throughout the film, Toller deprives himself of pleasure and relationships, instead choosing to focus on the shortcomings of himself and others. Opposing this view of Christianity is the prosperity gospel offered at Abundant Life. Overall, Schrader critiques both extremes with a level hand throughout the film.
Many films released today showcase the triumph of a main character over some sort of obstacle. These films are meant to showcase the vitality of the human spirit and to show us that, with determination, anything can be accomplished. “First Reformed” is different. Toller is a fallen human being physically, emotionally and spiritually. His inner demons are symbolized through physical ailments that culminate in cancer. The film showcases a side of human nature that is not often explored in film: how a man can descend into despair. Rather than triumphing over his circumstances, Schrader shows us that the human spirit is capable of crumbling in the face of despair if not properly supported.
Without spoiling its ending, the film’s closing moments begin with a surreal pitting of hope against despair. It begins with images of hope that eventually are overtaken. This sets up one of the most thrilling sequences in any film of 2018. It is not loud, there is almost no action, but it will have audiences tense for the last 25 minutes of the film.
Overall, Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” offers a bleak look at what man is capable of, a meditation on the church today and a potential for hope to the observant viewer.