Much like Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller character is unable to put pen to paper in First Reformed and the director Paul Schrader said he wouldn’t write a screenplay that centered on spirituality and religion for the longest time, I was hesitant about writing down my thoughts on this film. A young Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver in 1972 and echoes of Travis Bickle remain in Reverend Toller, a much different character yet equally lost. A lot has been said of how people of faith/ the religious community are portrayed poorly or without depth in films; this film is a rarity as it depicts a man of faith with a troubled past and struggling to grasp the current state of the world. Reverend Toller runs the small and touristy First Reformed church in Snowbridge, New York which was a stop on the underground railroad thus a historical landmark. First Reformed is owned by a nearby corporate megachurch, Abundant Life, run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer).
Much of Reverend Toller’s despair comes from the loss of his son, who he encouraged to enlist as a family tradition, in the Iraq war and the resulting failure of his marriage. Pastor Jeffers appointed him Reverend of the First Reformed church almost out of pity. Reverend Toller is struggling with his health and alcohol addiction. He starts writing a journal which he vows to destroy after a year; this journal is a deep dive into his psyche and his inability to pray as of late. The whole plot kicks in when he is introduced to Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband who is a pessimistic, radical environmentalist and doesn’t want his pregnant wife to bring a baby into this world. Reverend Toller suddenly feels a sense of purpose in helping this couple especially the troubled husband.
The film eventually evolves into perplexing madness that can only be seen and not told. The ending is abrupt and bizarre; it left me completely puzzled and in awe at the same time. Ethan Hawke is absolutely brilliant in this role and this might be his best work to date which is saying a lot given his filmography. Two weeks after watching First Reformed, I am still thinking about it; it is not a perfect film but it is perfectly timed and is a nice companion piece to Taxi Driver for the modern day. (A-)
“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose, despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” Reverend Toller