A character study of a spiritually tormented loner, from screenwriter Paul Schrader – it sounds like Taxi Driver (1976) all over again. But First Reformed is ultimately a very different story. This time the man with an overwhelming sense of moral outrage is the minister of a small church in Upstate New York, Reverend Ernst Toller. His dwindling congregation includes depressed environmental activist Michael, and his pregnant wife Mary.
Mary confides to Toller that her husband wants to end their unborn child’s life, to spare them from what he sees as the planet’s bleak future, post-global warming. Toller agrees to counsel him, and the stage is set for a deep tête-à-tête, in which the film’s themes are laid out. Michael poses the question: ‘Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?’ Secretly shaken, but thrilled by the debate, Toller posits that the essence of life is in the simultaneous holding of conflicting truths: hope and despair. The story goes on to vividly dramatise the tension between these concepts, in the face of a broken creation.
Schrader was raised in a Christian home, attending the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church. Clearly this a deeply personal project. Returning to issues he first tackled in Taxi Driver, the influence of his apparently abandoned faith still looms large. Drawing inspiration from 1951 French film Diary of a Country Priest, Schrader even used the same aspect ratio as that film, giving only a slightly wider image than old ‘square’ televisions.
First Reformed gives a fair portrayal of many difficult Christian truths. When Toller assists with a youth meeting at the megachurch that supports his tiny parish, he is asked why some Christians have cushy lives, while others face trials. He gives a considered response, explaining that Christ doesn’t promise health and wealth in this life, and that the path of faith may be a hard one.
As Toller is drawn into the world of extreme environmentalism, more pressing deficiencies in his spiritual walk go ignored. He dismisses an affair he once had as not ‘real sin’, and in becoming obsessed with Michael’s question of whether God will forgive us for destroying the planet, he seems to forget the free forgiveness Jesus offers for all sins.
Despite the film’s staid construction and slow pace, it builds to surreal heights. The disarming finale uses a powerful rendition of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, achieving something close to what Schrader describes as ‘transcendental style’.
★★★★☆ A rewarding study of faith in crisis.