A man of faith is tested to the limit in Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Stoller, the minister of a Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York that dates back to the 18th century. Very few people come to his church, which has become more of an historical landmark than a vital place of worship. Stoller’s ministry is part of Abundant Life, a much larger church in a nearby city headed by Joel Jeffers, a genial televangelist played by Cedric Kyles. The Reverend Jeffors is paying more attention to Stoller than usual because the old church, First Reformed, is coming up on the 250th anniversary of its consecration, and Stoller is in charge of making sure the celebration runs smoothly.
Then a young church member named Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried, asks Toller to counsel her husband. She’s pregnant, but he doesn’t believe it’s right to bring children into the world, and wants her to get an abortion. Toller meets with the young man, an activist, who explains that the human race is on a fast track to extinction because of climate change and other kinds of harm to the environment, which we have failed to take effective action to prevent. In his mind and voice, this is not an abstract problem, but a real and urgent concern. Then he asks a question, “Can God forgive us for destroying His creation?” Stoller’s answer is “Who can know the mind of God?” and then he shares about his troubles as a former military chaplain who lost his only son in Iraq. But the question has penetrated his heart, and an agony of inner doubt begins.
Films about people going through a religious crisis are not very common. Ingmar Bergman was one of the few directors dealing with that theme. Another example was Robert Bresson, an avowed influence on Schrader. Some of the story elements here are reminiscent of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and to a lesser degree Bergman’s Winter Light. Most films dealing with religion nowadays are either propagating what the target audience already wants to believe, or criticizing organized religion from the ourside. First Reformed, on the other hand, is part of a minor genre featuring a character’s inward struggle between faith and doubt, or between one’s beliefs about God and love and the hate and injustice in the world. Schrader, who was raised in a Dutch Calvinist community, takes this theme very seriously. It’s quite characteristic of his work that he would inject a modern element into this old type of story—namely, the threat to our environment. The film isn’t about environmentalism or climate change, at least not in an informational way, but it’s a crucial aspect of the drama, especially for those of us who believe what the scientists are telling us. For Ethan Hawke’s character, it doesn’t just become an urgent public policy concern, but calls into question all his ideas about God, and God’s relationship to human beings. The greatest point of tension is reached when the Reverend realizes that the millionaire who is the chief funder of First Reformed, and of the upcoming 250-year celebration, is also the CEO of one of the biggest polluters on earth.
Schrader has a habit of going against type in his casting, and I think his choice of Ethan Hawke, now in his 40s but still associated with boyish roles, is an inspired one. Hawke’s earnestness and open demeanor combine here with a darker, more self-involved side, to create a very powerful portrait of spiritual conflict. Most of the film is composed of quiet, static scenes in which the loneliness of a religious quest is depicted, except in the cases of two important sequences in the film, one of them at the very end, in which the moving camera evokes the sense of a mysterious higher realm. There is a shocking element to Schrader’s vision here which nothing can prepare you for—yet First Reformed still chooses to remain ambiguous, thereby cutting even deeper.