The First Reformed of Paul Schrader’s new film is a church, a small edifice in Upstate New York with a rich history in the abolitionist movement, a landmark of a bygone age of activism and justice. Now, it’s little more than a museum piece that exists in the shadow of the more popular mega-church that owns it, and its depleted parish is presided over by the taciturn Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke). Though Toller still gives sermons to mostly empty pews, his main duty seems to be leading guided tours and identifying various period details; in one scene, he dramatically reveals the basement trapdoor that was once used by the Underground Railroad.
This pointed moment helps set up the central conflict in what’s easily Schrader’s best and most fascinating film in many years. First Reformed is an intentional, focused work that asks the same question of its lead character and its audience: How can God forgive what humans have done to his creation? The story follows Toller as he grapples with what he sees as the church’s abandonment of its moral mission, not just in the realm of social justice but also in preserving the health of our planet. While First Reformed is a wrenching movie, it’s never gratuitous, and it marks an incredible return to form for an artist still best-known for his screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Of course, Schrader has had a storied career as a director, too—his most-remembered work is probably American Gigolo, but he’s produced many challenging dramas that follow people at the intersection of some powerful, individual crisis. For Toller, that crisis has been brewing for more than a decade, since his son died serving in the Iraq War (after being encouraged to enlist by Toller). After that loss, Toller’s wife left him; his assignment at the small First Reformed church upstate was given to him out of pity by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, credited with his real last name of Kyles), who heads up the larger congregation nearby.
At first, Toller’s spiritual malaise manifests as apathy. He’s stopped taking care of himself, is drinking too much, and is ignoring a mounting health crisis that’s causing him to spit up blood in the middle of the night. But then he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who begs him to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist so consumed with his fears of the Earth’s