for Susan McCaslin and Mark Haddock
By J.S. Porter
Director and screenwriter Paul Schrader has made a film worth your time. You may know him as the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Raging Bull or as the director of Affliction and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Not since Bergman has a director explored the God-question with such honesty and authenticity. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian says First Reformed is “Shaker furniture in movie form – stark, plain, conceived in austere and intelligent good taste.”
Schrader builds slowly, quietly. He makes “slow cinema,” the kind with images you can meditate on. You see an old wooden church in the lingering opening scene. The image has the quiet solidity of an Andrew Wyeth oil painting. The church, sparsely attended, exists as a kind of historic relic by the largesse of a neighbouring megachurch, the kind of church that has corporate sponsors, even ones that pollute the water. You hear a voice speaking, you see a troubled man, Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), who’s keeping a diary and drinking whiskey. The church’s 250th. anniversary approaches.
The church was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Now it’s a tourist attraction “catering to a dwindling congregation, eclipsed by its nearby parent church, Abundant Life, with its state-of-the-art facilities and 5,000-strong flock” (from the official synopsis).
Rev. Toller has lost a child and a marriage. He is falling into despair.
A stranger, a pregnant woman, joins the pastor’s church. Her name is Mary (Amanda Seyfried). She asks the pastor to speak to her husband. The husband Michael (Peter Ettinger) is an environmentalist who doesn’t want his pregnant wife to have their baby. The core of Pastor Toller’s counter-argument is: “Whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.”
The troubled pastor reaches out to the troubled husband. The husband’s question reverberates in the pastor’s mind: “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?” The question haunts the film.
The pastor attends a youth group meeting where some in attendance express a lack of compassion for those who are struggling and unsuccessful. Schrader gives weight to the scene in a recent interview when he says that “[t]his notion that the poor are poor because they deserve to be and the rich are rich because they’re better. That happens to be the ruling logic of America at this time. That is not Christian logic and it’s certainly not what Jesus taught. But it’s the logic of our overlords.”
According to Schrader,
In the film there are two types of churches: There’s the kind of austere, old-fashioned church where people go in there to be quiet and live with their thoughts. And then there’s this other new church which is an arena entertainment-based church, which has become so successful now that being in one of those mega churches is like being at a football game or a Taylor Swift concert (from an interview with Schrader by Matt Patches, June 11, 2018).
Rev. Toller prefers quiet. He tries to help the husband out of his despair while being immersed in it himself. He paraphrases 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.”
In the scene between Toller and Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles), the head pastor of the megachurch, Merton makes another appearance.
“That guy you’re always reading?”
“He didn’t live in the real world either.” (John Anderson, America: The Jesuit Review, May 17, 2018)
Jeffers lives in the “real” world, marketing, promoting and keeping his church financially afloat.
There is much to tell you about in this film. I don’t want to spoil it. The plot takes dramatic turns. There are times when you ask – is this too much? Too far? I’ll restrain my urge to tell you. There is one detail, however, I can’t resist telling. There’s a scene in which pregnant Mary lies on top of Toller and they dream and space travel together over creation because that is what she used to do with her husband and Toller, being a good pastor, wants her to trust him. They see the beauty and majesty of creation together, and the heartbreak of losing it.
Schrader’s personal conviction comes through in First Reformed: “I do believe in the holy. But I am not a partisan or parochialist. There is another world out there. It’s right next to us. Some days you can almost reach over and touch it, and that’s the world of the spirit, but it doesn’t have names. It’s out there. We all find that in our own way.”
Schrader’s filmic conviction also comes through: a great thing for an artist to accomplish is to “cleave a crevice in the viewer’s skull that they have to somehow close.” He has cleaved a crevice in my skull I haven’t yet closed.