The impassioned qualities that Paul Schrader brings to First Reformed are exactly what one hopes for in a religion—it’s compelling even when you don’t believe it. No one gets a MacArthur grant for figuring the film’s roots: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962), Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and, to a lesser extent, Bresson’s 1977’s The Devil, Probably. Bergman noted that one of his wives had described Winter Light as “a dreary masterpiece.” If this harmoniously composed First Reformed may not be a masterpiece, it’s definitely not dreary. The anger in it—the American quality, that refuses to swallow wrath instead of expressing it as violence—gives it a simmer.
Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary pastor, a devotee of Kierkegaard and Thomas Merton in a working class upstate New York wowed by charismatic churches. Toller leads the white-painted, steepled 250-year-old First Reformed church in Albany. It’s a bone thrown at him by Jeffers, the well-fed pastor of the Abundant Life megachurch (Cedric Kyles aka Cedric the Entertainer).
Toller’s pregnant parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches the pastor about her troubled husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), tormented about bringing a baby into a world doomed by climate change. Mary finds evidence that Michael is planning a terrorist act. His likely target: A billionaire climate-change denier (Michael Gaston) who is a major donor to Abundant Life and First Reformed. Torn by his own uncertainty, and convinced by Michael’s ecological activism, Toller wonders if he should make a martyr of himself.
The bleakness is nothing but honest in Alexander Dynan’s photography, with its pristine Academy ratio, its visions of cold humble streets, bare lightbulbs and silent rooms.
The film is an immersive portrait of obsession. Schrader was raised in his own tradition of devotion. He minored in theology at Calvin College, and for religious reasons, didn’t see a movie until he was 17. He went from film critic, to screenwriter to director.