First Reformed November 23, 2018
Cedric the Entertainer
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
mplode. That’s what the protagonists of Paul Schrader’s movies do. In Taxi Driver (1976), a Martin Scorsese-helmed character study he wrote, a loner, played by Robert De Niro, saw his prolonged social isolation metamorphose into a violent catharsis. In Hardcore (1980), one of Schrader’s first forays into directing, a devoutly religious man’s faith is tested after his teenage daughter runs off to California and becomes a
porn actress and sex worker. And in 2002’s Auto Focus, a biographical film about the actor Bob Crane, relentless debauchery leads to burnout and tragedy.
First Reformed, Schrader's latest movie, and something of a return to form, capitalizes on that implosion motif. It's both about apostasy — the abandonment of one’s faith — and general disillusionment about the state of the world. It's a movie made for these times, though that entails it be a work of comprehensive despair more than much else.
The movie stars Ethan Hawke, giving one of his most loaded performances, as Ernst, a reverend at the helm of First Reformed Church, a 250-year-old place of worship which sits on the outskirts of the fictional Snowbridge, New York. Ernst begins the movie elucidating an ambition. Each day, for the rest of the year, he will write in a diary, in which he will pen his entries by hand. The book will eventually be destroyed. Presumably, the journal will act as a tool for him to expound his frustrations — of which there are many — without further alienating his already-dwindling acolytes and fellow church leaders.
Early on in First Reformed, Ernst will have an exchange that will set him off course. A local churchgoer, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is 20 weeks pregnant, approaches him and tells him that she would like him to speak with her husband. The latter, named Michael (Philip Ettinger), has become a radical environmentalist in recent years. Mary is considering counseling, especially since Michael, a vision of hopelessness, wants her to get an abortion. He has reservations about bringing a child into a world that seems on the brink of a collapse.
Ernst visits their home; the objective, it seems, is to talk Michael down. But over the course of their conversation, which works as one of the year’s best scenes, Ernst finds that nothing is exactly wrong with Michael: He is irreversibly depressed, true, but he is rightfully and understandably so. During the exchange, Ernst additionally relates his own miseries. He used to be a military chaplain, and is still mourning the loss of his son, whom he encouraged to enlist but who ultimately died in battle, and his marriage.
Ernst is struggling with alcoholism and chronic stomach problems — issues that undoubtedly go hand in hand — but the Michael confab aggravates his sorrow in a new way. He is, after all, at the heart of an organization in which it's relatively taboo to think about, and speak on, environmental and social issues. When he brings up his disaffections to Joel (Cedric the Entertainer), who leads a church down the way that attracts thousands and seems a beacon of myopic positivity, he is spoken to as if he were being unnecessarily dramatic. As if it were sacrilegious to be concerned about climate change, about injustice.
First Reformed is a film of tremendous fury, and the rage, and bemusement, feels personal. Like Schrader, the Ernst character hails from Michigan. Schrader, too, was raised in a zealously religious household — his parents, Joan and Charles, were devoted Calvinists — and he minored in theology at Calvin College. In no doubt does he know the difficulties of keeping one’s faith in the midst of dark times. First Reformed is an ode to doubt, and the ways that that dubiousness can evolve bleakly and possibly violently. Of course, the feature's dolor is amped — to a point where grays, whites, and blacks start looking like primary colors — but it captures the evocative cinematic numbness with which Schrader has come to be associated.
Hawke occupies Ernst with unnerving exactitude. The character’s indignation is mostly bottled — save for a moment, toward the end of the movie, where he screams into his robes — and yet Hawke finds the complexity in the suppression. His face is forever fixed in a scowl; his eyes are always downward in a way that deepens a forehead crease. Hawke’s most iconic performances — as Troy in Reality Bites (1994), Jesse in the Before … series (1995-2013), Hank in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) — usually involve a certain scraggly enthusiasm. His portrayal in First Reformed is so startling — albeit invitingly — in part because his ardor is quiet and contained rather than external.
First Reformed is a great movie about religious unease. It's a scion of thematically similar definitives, from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963). It’s commanding and moving, but it's burdensome, too: it over-taxes the emotions, the human spirit. But it is also in productive conversation with period-specific dissidence, and what is a movie if not a reflection of the era from which it came? A