Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader is best known for writing Taxi Driver and co-writing Raging Bull. With First Reformed, a movie written and directed by Schrader, the filmmaker can step out of Martin Scorsese’s long shadow and add an accomplishment all his own to the list of his most prominent credits.
First Reformed, a sparsely attended historic church in Upstate New York, has poor attendance in part because its leader, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), is impersonal and dry. Toller is struggling with severe stomach pain, alcoholism, and his sense of purpose when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant member of his congregation, pulls him aside after a sermon. Mary asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who wishes Mary to get an abortion. Michael is an environmental extremist who is agitated by human-induced climate change. He worries that bringing a child into an uninhabitable world would be unjust. Toller attempts to mitigate Michael’s surging discontent, but before long, Toller becomes obsessed with the world’s imminent climate disaster himself.
On top of his environmental and personal despondence, Toller is asked to deliver remarks at First Reformed’s 250th-anniversary celebration. The ceremony is being planned and executed by Abundant Life, a megachurch that owns First Reformed, and its pastor, Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer). Toller soon realizes that the ceremony is a political stunt for the state’s governor and Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the owner of the fictional BALQ Industries, a massive fossil fuel corporation. Toller combats his physical ailment, obligations to his parish, and eco-anxiety with his budding friendship with Mary and murky cocktails of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol.
First Reformed is an austere film. The embodiment of its main character, the mood is ominous and somber. Throughout the movie, Schrader invokes the classic turmoil between faith and responsibility; Jeffers argues that God is in control while Toller decides that he must take matters into his own hands. The two differ in more than just their approach to conflict, though; their religious philosophies are night and day. Jeffers—the picture of organized religion’s modern incarnation—believes in joy and spectacle through God. Toller, meanwhile, like First Reformed itself, represents a bygone understanding of religion, driven by his inherent desire to suffer.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Oscar Isaac were originally considered for the role of Toller, but Schrader opted for Hawke in part because he was the most seasoned of the bunch. Toller needed to seem world-weary enough to submit to the ideas of a radical. Hawke, who did not even receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination, deserved to win the award. His performance defined a special movie.
Throughout the film, Michael, consumed by thoughts of environmental collapse, repeatedly returns to a single idea: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” Schrader says no, but responding to environmental collapse with extremism offers a comparably grim future.