In the beginning, “First Reformed” feels like a polite movie. Writer-director Paul Schrader’s drama follows a pastor in upstate New York who tends to his flock, writes in his journal and quietly grapples with a crisis of faith.
But then an act of shocking violence occurs, a reminder that Schrader has made many impolite movies, including writing “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” for Martin Scorsese. Without losing track of its heady moral arguments, “First Reformed” becomes a much rougher and meatier film from Schrader. It’s his best since 1997’s “Affliction.”
Pastor Toller (Ethan Hawke) tends to a dwindling flock at his small church, known more for its historical role in the Underground Railroad than its present-day mission. Essentially a souvenir shop with a house of worship attached, Toller’s church is a relic of the past. The present is embodied by the big megachurch in town, which owns and operates Toller’s church, thanks in part to donations from a big multinational paper company.
The pastor spends his days giving guided tours of the church, doing small repairs, giving sermons to near-empty pews. At night, he drinks heavily and writes in his journal of his spiritual doubts. God hasn’t spoken to him in a while, and he blames himself.
He jumps at the chance to counsel a parishioner, in this case an environmental activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger) who is in despair over how humanity is wrecking the planet, such as that paper company poisoning the river near town. Michael questions whether his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) should bring their unborn child into a world that's dying spiritually and physically.
Their conversation, in low polite tones, is riveting, as both search for the presence of God in a world that seems to have abandoned him. Rather than offer easy platitudes, Toller takes the man’s doubt seriously and reveals his own pain.
“First Reformed” captures the despair that good and decent people can feel, looking at a world that seems to have turned its back on goodness and decency. “Can God forgive us?” is a question that reverberates through Toller’s soul and the film.
Toller comes away from Michael shaken, his doubts deepening. He drinks more, lacerates himself in his journal for self-pity, and picks fights with the arrogant head of the paper company (Michael Gaston) whose donations his church relies on. Hawke’s performance is terrifically understated. An actor we’re used to seeing talking loquaciously in films like the “Before” trilogy, he uses silence and stillness so effectively here to convey Toller’s anxiety.
In charting Toller's downward spiral, Schrader proceeds at an unhurried pace, but the film acquires the momentum of a thriller as Toller unravels. Within this quiet, deceptively simple story, Schrader suddenly knocks us off-balance with elements like that violent act, or a surreal episode that feels like an unexpected miracle, or a delusion. The ending, in particular, is left deliberately cryptic, sparking conversation over whether Toller managed to overcome his demons or to succumb to them.
While it would never be confused with “God’s Not Dead 3” or any of the other “faith-based” films offering easy answers at the multiplex, “First Reformed” is a serious and somber exploration of faith — both faith in a higher power and in humanity — and the challenge of maintaining it in a world that offers so much reason to doubt.
And yet I came away invigorated and even hopeful. Better to shine a light into the dark corners than to pretend they aren’t there.