Like the Gospels, this review contains spoilers.
In Paul Schrader's spiritual drama First Reformed, the middle-aged pastor of a historic Reformed Protestant church in upstate New York is called upon by a young parishioner to counsel her husband, a radical environmentalist so distraught over the planet's future that he wants to kill himself. Conferring in the husband's study, which is wallpapered with dire scientific charts, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) urges the troubled Michael (Philip Ettinger) not to surrender to despair. As the minister records the encounter in his journal that evening, he lights on a quote from the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton: "Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone's certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are." Toller is glad he didn't say this to Michael, but the words might have fallen on deaf ears anyway; the next day, Toller receives a text from the young man summoning him to a nearby forest preserve and arrives to discover that Michael has blown his brains out with a rifle.
Despair is Schrader's preoccupation here, one he manages to electrify by grounding it in the panic over environmental collapse. "The bad times, they will begin, and from that point everything moves very quickly," Michael fulminates to the minister. "This social structure can't bear the stress of multiple crises. Opportunistic diseases, anarchy, martial law, the tipping point. And this isn't in some distant future—you will live to see this." After Michael's death, his pregnant widow, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller to help box up her husband's things, and the minister begins reading up on the state of God's creation. He recoils from Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), the conservative oil man who's been bankrolling the renovation of his church, and he gives in to despair himself, because he's a proud man and he lives in a nation where pride is celebrated.
Some critics have called First Reformed the summit of Schrader's career, which began in 1976 with his screenplay for Taxi Driver. I wouldn't go that far—nothing tops Affliction (1997), his bleak drama about a small-town sheriff being destroyed by his toxic father—but First Reformed confronts explicitly some of the spiritual questions the 71-year-old director has been sneaking into his screenplays for years. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schrader grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church with a family so pious he never saw a movie until he was 17. Despite the sex and violence of his better-known films (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People, Auto Focus), he loves the ascetic French director Robert Bresson and gravitates toward characters who, in their own warped ways, hunger for transcendence—from sitcom star Bob Crane losing himself in sexual debauchery (Auto Focus) to writer Yukio Mishima committing seppuku after a failed political coup (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) to cabbie Travis Bickle staging a one-man commando raid to rescue a child prostitute (Taxi Driver).
With Reverend Toller, Schrader has finally gotten his hands on the real thing, a troubled spiritual seeker who—like the protagonist of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951)—keeps a journal as a form of prayer. As Toller explains to Michael, he served for years as an army chaplain and, over his wife's objections, persuaded his son to enlist in the wake of 9/11; after the son was killed in Iraq, the minister's wife left him and he retired from the military. "Whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it," he tells Michael. The minister deflects romantic overtures from Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director at the giant Abundant Life Ministries center not far away, and their conversation hints at a past sexual encounter that now fills him with chagrin. When Toller goes to the toilet, his urine is pink with blood, and when the church custodian takes out the garbage, he finds a bag from the rectory that's filled with empty liquor bottles.
Schrader knew what he was doing when he made Toller a military veteran, because the bedrock of the armed forces is pride—pride in the uniform, pride in the service, pride in the nation. Soldiers may fear for their lives, but no more than they fear shaming themselves or their unit (or maybe their military parents). For Merton, however, pride only separates us from God and leads us into despair. "Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love," Merton wrote in his 1949 book Seeds of Contemplation. "It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost. In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. . . . But a man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity."
Toller begins his journal as an exercise in spiritual self-examination, but as he grows increasingly distressed about the environment, one begins to wonder if the journal is helping him or leading him further into despair. Again Schrader modernizes his religious concerns, connecting Toller's journal to the smartphone loneliness of the young people he counsels at Abundant Life Ministries. "These kids grow up in a world that, you and I, we wouldn't even recognize," explains his boss, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles—aka Cedric the Entertainer—in a sterling dramatic performance). "Global warming, pornography, hyperviolent video games. It's a world without privacy. Each kid isolated, communicating on media. It's a world without hope." The parallel rise in social media and teen suicide has been well noted; a recent study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science found teenagers who spent more than five hours online a day were 70 percent more likely to kill themselves than those who spent one.
First Reformed begins to get really interesting when Schrader turns the tables on his hero—and us, and possibly himself—by noting the pride and self-righteousness of Toller's environmental awakening. When Toller meets with Jeffers and Ed Balq at a local diner to discuss the reconsecration ceremony for the church, the minister makes the mistake of pressing Balq, a powerful man accustomed to deference, on the immorality of despoiling the air, water, and land. "Will God forgive us for what we're doing to his creation?" The oil man cuts him off: "You know the mind of God? You spoke to him personally? He told you his plans for earth?" Later in the film Toller clashes with Jeffers over the church's silence on the issue of climate change. "What if this is his plan?" asks Jeffers. "What if we just can't see it?" Toller is incredulous: "You think God wants to destroy his creation?" Jeffers doesn't miss a beat: "He did once. For 40 days and 40 nights." The same humility that Merton preached can be used as a cover for denial, cowardice, and inaction.
As Toller spirals downward, Schrader reveals how caught up the minister is in himself. When Esther approaches him to worry over his health, Toller turns on her. "I cannot bear your concern, your constant hovering, your neediness," he spits. "You are a constant reminder of my own personal inadequacies and failings. You want something that never was and never will be. I despise you. I despise what you bring out in me. Your concerns are petty. You are a stumbling block." The minister stalks off, leaving Esther open-mouthed in shock. Eventually Toller goes off the deep end, trying on a suicide vest that Michael left behind and, in voice-over, quoting from Paul's sixth letter to the Ephesians: "Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world." He might as well be Travis Bickle soliloquizing in front of his mirror, though as Schrader has already made clear, the mirror is inside Toller's head. v