sat 15/06/2024

First Reformed - faith fights the eco-apocalypse | reviews, news & interviews

First Reformed - faith fights the eco-apocalypse

First Reformed - faith fights the eco-apocalypse

Hawke and Seyfried search for divine light in Paul Schrader's austere parable

Crisis of faith: Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke)

Father Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) calls himself one of God’s lonely men. The term given to Paul Schrader’s anti-heroes since Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is usefully explained by the priest: his loneliness is a divine attribute letting him sympathise with fellow sufferers. Take one look at Hawke’s face, though, which seems sucked into hollow-cheeked, unnatural nobility, and it’s clear few need help more than him.

First Reformed’s opening shot dollies towards a looming clapboard church which predates the United States. The state of the nation and planet still seeps into what has become a tourist relic, with a congregation of a half dozen on the day Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Ernst for help. This former military chaplain’s position already seems a form of penance, after losing the son he encouraged to serve in Iraq.

Ethan Hawke in First ReformedMary’s atheist, eco-warrior husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) wants her to abort their baby, rather than bring it into a world he sees as doomed to climate apocalypse. In one of First Reformed’s most nervily great scenes, Schrader’s camera observes for perhaps ten minutes as these two men sit and debate faith in life versus despair with heady intellectual rigour, and Michael’s fate clearly in the balance. Ernst is “exhilarated” as he’s raised from the stupor of parish chores to feel like Jacob wrestling the angel.

The film asks questions which both secular and religious communities are uncomfortable answering. But when the despairing eco-idealist and the damaged priest meet, their similar commitment sparks ideological fission, and Ernst goes into meltdown. Mary’s discovery of Michael’s Jihadist-style suicide vest, and Ernst’s of the complicity of his slick mega-church bosses with an ecologically criminal owner, accelerates his crisis.  

Schrader’s career since the Oscar-winning Affliction (1997) has resembled a losing guerrilla war, in which his improvised tactics merely let him survive till the next defeat. His previous film about a priest, the Exorcist sequel Dominion, saw Die Hard director Renny Harlin humiliatingly hired to reshoot it. Similar hackery befell Dying of the Light, while Bret Easton Ellis and Lindsay Lohan joined him in the pornographic twilight of The Canyons, a zero-budget autopsy on all their Hollywood careers. Artistic successes which escaped this fascinating period, Auto Focus’s untypically gaudy biopic of a falling TV star among them, went unseen. First Reformed is his first screenplay to reach the screen unscathed in a decade, and shows an artist strengthened by the fight.

Amanda Seyfried in First RefomedThe upstate New York setting and Alexander Dynan’s bleached-grey cinematography suit the austere Calvinism of Ernst and Schrader’s upbringing, into which red-coated Mary brings sensual life. The director’s devotion to Robert Bresson’s stylistic simplicity is his clearest display of faith. Ernst unceremoniously walks out of the corner of static, square-framed scenes, and Lustmord’s dark ambient score is silent between the ominous opening and last-reel unravelling.

The startling transcendence Schrader then dares twice during Ernst’s manic lunge for redemption is unnatural to his hair-shirt style, but necessary. Staying with his initial tale of a priest doggedly trying to do right amidst subtle corruptions would perhaps have been still braver than his late, screeching turn into melodrama.

The over-certain, commodified America in which Ernst tries to be pure and good is anyway integrated into a story which the fine cast keep painfully human. They help turn Schrader’s Jacob-like grapple with life’s potential into one of his greatest successes.

When the despairing eco-idealist and the damaged priest meet, Ernst goes into meltdown


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters