First Reformed

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 18, 2018

'First Reformed'
'First Reformed'  

Rejoice, cinema faithful: Ethan Hawke has suffered for the sins of Paul Schrader's latest movie, "First Reformed," so the rest of us don't have to.

Hawke plays a pastor named Toller. Once a military chaplain, Toller encouraged his son to sign up for service in order to carry on the tradition of the men in their family. When his son ended up dying overseas, Toller's marriage and career crumbled. Now he's subsisting on the crumbs of a post at First Reform, a quaint tourist attraction of a church located in the fictional small town of Snowbridge, New York. Not not only is First Reformed little more than a museum - its weekly services attract fewer than a dozen parishioners - it's also basically a holding of a megachurch that's absorbed and denatured that old time religion. Marketing, branding, and diluting scripture with an overt prosperity gospel message and an attitude that worry and activism are anti-faith, the megachurch is basically in bed with corporate sponsor Balq, an energy company with a dismal environmental record.

It's for these very reasons that the aptly-named Michael (Philip Ettinger) and Mary (Amanda Seyfried) attend First Reformed and not the megachurch. Michael is an ecological activist who's been serving time; he wins early release thanks to the fact that Mary is pregnant, but he's so pessimistic about the planet's chances for long-term survival that he feels the only moral course is for Mary to abort the baby. During the one and only session of counseling Michael undergoes with Toller, he expresses a laundry list of grievances and concerns, all of which Toller - drawing on his own experience dismisses. Despair at bringing a child into the world, he tells the distraught young man, pales next to the despair of losing a child.

But it's not as though Toller has all the answers. Wracked with grief and guilt - and now, possibly something worse - he drowns his breakfast cereal in whiskey and keeps a glass of scotch at hand as he bends over his notebook late at night, having committed to an exercise in journaling for one year. Toller's in pretty rough shape, not unlike his small church; where the pastor is pissing blood and wracked by dry heaves, the facilities of both church and rectory are in poor condition. It's a state of affairs that Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) - in charge of the megachurch and, by extension, Toller's little ministry - seeks to improve in time for a celebratory 250th anniversary re-consecration.

What's Toller sick with? An ulcer? Cancer? Whatever it is, it eats away at his body even as Michael's eco-angst begins to torment his psyche. At the same time, romantic feelings for Mary begin to surface, colliding with the ashes of a failed relationship that Toller briefly enjoyed with Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director of the megachurch. In a moment of true passion, eros mixes with terror and religious ecstasy as Toller and Mary, bodies pressed together, take flight on a trippy, metaphorical rush of happiness and connection; even here, though, the grim certainties of environmental collapse and human stupidity tarnish the moment. Poor Toller; no wonder he's so depressed. He can't escape his own mind; indeed, he ends up comparing his counseling session with Michael to the way Jacob wrestled with an angel in the book of Genesis. That's the less overt and obnoxious of Schrader's two direct references to Biblical figures with respect to Toller. The other, naturally enough, is Jesus; substitute a length of barbed wire for a crown of thorns, and you've set the stage for a brutal, and somewhat creepy, climax.

Where's Schrader going with all this? In all directions, it seems. "First Reformed" is a sermon on the theological mendacity of prosperity gospel and the dangers of conflating faith with ideology. (Extremism, Schrader all but lectures us, is the result of this latter sin.) It's also a parable about doubt, the sin of self-destruction, and the possibility of redemption (which, if you're a straight man, inevitably seems to involve a younger, fertile woman, preferably blonde). But what! It's also a gritty drama about loss - loss of direction, compromise of principle, and the exchange of anything like a holy struggle for commoditized comfort, be it electricity and consumer goods or easy certainties of belief, moral superiority, and eternal reward. Or, it could be a suspense thriller; in Act One, a suicide vest makes its presence known, so surely by Act Four there's going to be a detonation of one sort or another.

Shot in tones ranging from smudged grey to muted, shadow-swaddled tungsten gold, "First Reformed" isn't about the light so much as the darkness. Problematically, nether is it about a character's journey so much as the soul-depleting task of spinning one's wheels. Michael Gaston shows up to provide a suitably diabolical one percenter - Balq, the owner of the namesake company - and his tart, serrated verbal attacks and thinly-veiled contempt lend a malicious spark to the movie, but otherwise this is lumpen and disjointed film that lies sodden and inert in its bowl, not unlike Toller's whiskey-soaked cornflakes. One hopes Schrader's film - which he directs as well as writes - might ascend to some higher level of organization, or at least inspiration, at the end, but... quite like a different sort of spirits... the film merely evaporates.

Don't look for the angels, or anyone else, to collect much of a share from this misfire.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.