The new film from Paul Schrader, “First Reformed,” is about believing in God, saving the world, and a pregnant woman named Mary. Unlike “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), however, which Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese, the story is set not two thousand years ago but in the present, against a backdrop of watery skies and leafless trees. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, who tends to the souls of Snowbridge, in Albany County, New York. Not many souls, mind you; when he bids the congregation rise, a bare handful stand in the pews. “They call it the souvenir shop,” he says of his graceful church, which was founded in 1767, and there’s a woebegone scene in which he gives three visitors a guided tour. One of them buys a commemorative hat. Another tells the Reverend a dirty joke about the organ. “I hadn’t heard that one,” he says, his misery now complete.
As time goes by, we learn a little more about Toller. He springs from devout stock; he used to be an Army chaplain; and he was married, with a son, Joseph. (Keep your ear tuned to the names in this film.) At his father’s urging, Joseph enlisted in the military and went to Iraq, where he was killed in action. Toller’s marriage broke under the strain, and he has washed up in Snowbridge, alone and sick. Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), a genial fellow who runs the local megachurch, which seats five thousand worshippers, is concerned by Toller’s state. Even Jesus, Jeffers points out, didn’t spend all his time in the garden of Gethsemane, “but you—you’re always in the garden. For you, every hour is the darkest hour.” Toller is a drinker, and his stomach pains him; the two problems merge in a single closeup, as he pours Pepto-Bismol into a tumbler of booze—a slow glug of lurid pink, billowing into scum.
This image, with its unlovely froth, is all the more potent because it hints at another crisis, infinitely larger than the trials of Toller. He is asked by a parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to advise her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). She is expecting their first child, but Michael, a pale-faced fretter, can find no justification for adding a new life to the planet, whose environmental demise he regards as imminent and catastrophic. “The bad times, they will begin,” he declares, sounding like a prophet of apocalypse.