Ernst Toller is a Reverend of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. Toller is also a former military captain who struggles to come to grips with the death of his son, Joseph. Worst of all, he himself had encouraged his son to enlist. Partially to ease his guilt, he has made the decision to write down his thoughts in a journal for a year, intending to destroy it once he is finished. First Reformed has existed for 250 years and was once a stop for the Underground Railroad. Its attendance has been dwindling over the years, and it now primarily serves as a tourist attraction owned by a megachurch named Abundant Life.
The true purpose of First Reformed becomes apparent when a woman named Mary attempts to seek counseling for her husband, Michael. He is an environmentalist who is shocked to discover Mary is pregnant. This is because he does not want to bring a child into a world he believes will be rendered nigh uninhabitable by climate change. It is quickly revealed that Michael’s methods are highly radicalized, for Mary finds a suicide vest her husband had been secretly manufacturing. She elects not to go to the police, believing it would only cause her husband’s mental state to deteriorate further. Just before another session, Michael texts Toller, telling him he wishes to meet in a local park instead. There, the reverend finds Michael dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound.
Upon release, First Reformed received universal critical acclaim with many people considering it Paul Schrader’s best film in decades. There are quite a few things that are particularly admirable about it. Leading man Ethan Hawke in particular turns in a memorable performance as Ernst Toller. Named after a famous playwright and philosopher, he is a man of faith, and his beliefs are thoroughly tested as the film goes on. Michael’s death has a profound impact on him. After looking into the issues of which the radical environmentalist spoke, he inherits many of his beliefs. Suddenly, he is seen spelling out “Will God forgive us?” thereby recreating the question Michael asked him during their first session.
Toller is shown to be highly indolent about his well-being, missing several mandatory checkups even as his health rapidly deteriorates. While the guilt he suffers having outlived his son could be used to explain the depths of his depression, it is only exacerbated when he learns the full extent of the effects of climate change on the Earth. By the end of the film, he considers following in Michael’s footsteps by donning the suicide vest and detonating it at First Reformed’s sestercentennial where Edward Balq, an important financial backer of Abundant Life and several of his associates are to attend. Only when Mary, despite Toller’s warnings, appears at the event does he back out.
Unfortunately, even if the individual pieces of this film are solid, they ultimately don’t come together to form something greater than their sum. After working with Martin Scorsese on films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader gained a reputation of one of the best writers in Hollywood. Only a fraction of that talent can be observed in First Reformed. One of the worst aspects of this film is that it doesn’t give the audience any room for interpretation. If they are to revere First Reformed, they must do so purely on Mr. Schrader’s terms. While the subtle approach isn’t always the ideal choice when you want to convey a message, rarely should your first inclination be to drill it into your audience’s head. This is because if you’re so determined to tell your audience about a real problem, you better be prepared to tell them how they can go about addressing it.
This is where First Reformed falls flat. Like many contemporary cautionary tales, it’s more interested in pointing out problems than proposing solutions. The only action its protagonist takes against the executives he sees responsible for polluting the world is still clearly shown to be wrong, leaving the audience with nothing. The only takeaway from First Reformed is that climate change is a bad thing – something anyone who even vaguely kept up with current events at the time already knew going into the film. Other than having a definable narrative revolve around this knowledge, there isn’t any new information to be gained from watching First Reformed.
I also have to comment that while Ethan Hawke is excellent as a leading man and Amanda Seyfried plays a good supporting role, everyone else is hit or miss. Philip Ettinger’s performance as Michael is decidedly stilted. Informing the reverend of what the world will be like by the 2050s is intended to be thought-provoking, but it comes across as though he’s reading aloud a Wikipedia article. Furthermore, one of the tour guides at Edward Balq’s company is so cartoonish, I was surprised Mr. Schrader had the restraint not to have her cackle like the Wicked Witch of the West. I don’t blame any of the actors for these performances because I don’t think the greatest leading men or women who ever lived could have made this writing sound plausible.
The film is also guilty of making the rookie mistake of having so much blame to hand out, it often falls upon the wrong parties. After meeting with a youth group, Toller is dismayed over how extreme they have become. While he could have had a point, only one member of the youth group actually acted out of line; everyone else was civil. Because of this, it’s difficult not to imagine Mr. Schrader writing that line to express his contempt for young adults and teenagers when in reality, problems such climate change cannot realistically be pinned on a single generation. It does, however, perfectly capture the unfortunate propensity self-proclaimed progressives had at the time of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Ultimately, First Reformed is a product of a time in which filmmakers and critics alike were far more interested in being timely rather than timeless. This is especially detrimental because one of the most important things for any film to possess is long-term appeal. It doesn’t matter how much of a game changer a film is; if people don’t want to watch it after a certain point, it may as well just be a footnote in a history book. The reason I say this is because the Achilles’ heel of First Reformed is that it’s a film without a future. To be clear, I do not in any way wish to deny the detrimental impacts climate change have inflicted upon the Earth. They’re incontestable and anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves or others. However, let’s say for the sake of argument that humanity finds some way to combat or even reverse its worst effects or otherwise perseveres for a much longer time than is predicted by its characters. In such a scenario, First Reformed would be about as easy to take seriously as Roland Emmerich’s 2012. On the other extreme end of the scale, if the concerns raised in this film spell humanity’s downfall before the end of the century, no one will be left to appreciate Mr. Schrader’s work.
What I particularly dislike about First Reformed is that it was made by someone who really should have known better. During the New Hollywood era, Mr. Schrader helped pen scripts for some of the most acclaimed films of all time, including that of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. He even managed to put his knowledge to good use when he found himself in the director’s chair, making classic films such as Blue Collar, Hardcore, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I saw none of that creative spark as I was watched First Reformed.
Indeed, if its director’s reputation hadn’t preceded him, it would be virtually indistinguishable from A24’s typical fare. This is the kind of film I would expect from a journeyman director who wanted to use A24 as a springboard before moving on to grander projects in the future. The twenty-first century was a rough patch for the veteran director with his 2014 effort Dying of the Light considered one of the worst films of the year and his other ones not faring that much better. Taking the critical consensuses at face value, First Reformed would appear to be the kind of career resurrection Mr. Schrader desperately needed. However, I feel the acclaim was ultimately achieved less on his work’s own merits and more by playing up to the critics’ sensibilities at the time. To put it another way, his early work helped shape an era whereas First Reformed was shaped by its era. Fewer things are more disappointing in the artistic world than when leaders become followers.
Final Score: 3/10