Struggles with faith are difficult to put on screen. In a visual medium like film, how do you show someone’s internal battle over something that is inherently a belief in what cannot be seen or proven? For answers, look no further than First Reformed, which masterfully deals with big questions and difficult topics thanks to impeccable filmmaking and an Oscar-worthy performance from Ethan Hawke.
If it seems wild that the guy who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull has created a must-see film about wrestling with faith, remember that the same man wrote the script for The Last Temptation of Christ. Paul Schrader wrote and directed First Reformed, about a pastor at a small church whose crisis of belief threatens to affect everyone around him, and change the course of his life entirely.
The film approaches big topics – faith, power, money, and love – in a sensitive way, but without shrinking away from what they represent to one man. The film manages to tackle these concepts by keeping its focus tight on one person, Hawke’s character, and by remembering where hope fits into all crises of faith.
Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a man who has experienced tremendous loss. He oversees a small congregation which worships in a 250-year old church. As the church is about to be re-consecrated to celebrate that 250th anniversary, Toller is approached by a parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to counsel her husband, who wants Mary to get an abortion.
The husband, Michael, has a long talk with Toller, and the change in the pastor’s life really starts there. He’s already lost his faith. He’s keeping a journal to try to keep his thoughts straight, but is also drinking and dealing with an undiagnosed illness. Schrader begins his depiction of faith by showing us the damage a lack of faith causes Toller – not just spiritually, but physically.
Through Michael’s influence, First Reformed looks at the idea that man should act as a steward of creation. Michael is an environmental activist whose deep pessimism about our planet’s future renders him unable to believe that he can responsibly bring a child into the world. The film wrestles with our level of responsibility to protect the world, and how any one person fits into those efforts.
That environmental concern leads right into questions about how money can corrupt even those who are well-meaning. Toller’s small congregation is affiliated with a megachurch, which handles all the financial burdens of Toller’s church. But that large organization is itself affiliated with a powerful local businessman who has some very specific opinions about Toller’s potential interest in global warming and other similar issues.
Schrader also creates Toller as a man who doesn’t know or accept love, at least in the wake of his own personal disaster years ago. We can assume that he once felt some sense of love, maybe even personal grace, but that those things are long gone. But Mary’s influence has a real effect on the shaken pastor, and on the audience as well. She brings a light into the movie, even in the darkest moments.
For all of these questions, Paul Schrader approaches the film with a slow, controlled style that refuses to look away from Toller’s problems. But when a couple moments break all the rules the rest of the film plays by, First Reformed finds moments of ecstatic beauty. (If you want to go really deep into these ideas, Schrader’s movie draws from great older films like Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.)
Ultimately, there’s the question of grace. Can this pastor find some measure of spiritual peace even as he comes to terms with what he cannot control? We won’t answer that question here, but First Reformed certainly does. It handles all these ideas with potency and sensitivity, thanks in large part to the performance from Ethan Hawke, to create a unique, surprising film.
First Reformed is in theaters now.