"Can God forgive us for what we've done to this world?"
This is the question posed to Reverend Ernst Toller (a superb Ethan Hawke) -- the lost soul at the heart of Paul Schrader's searing theological drama "First Reformed" -- by Michael (Philip Ettinger), a troubled young man who the pastor has agreed to counsel.
Toller has agreed to meet with Michael at the request of Michael's wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who's become concerned about the way her husband's passionate environmental activism has curdled over time into a deep depression and anger. Now she's pregnant, and Michael wants her to get an abortion, believing that bringing a child into a world doomed to environmental catastrophe and collapse would be immoral.
Bitter, isolated, and in the midst of his own crisis of faith, Toller finds a certain joy in his conversation with Michael. Having his beliefs questioned and being forced to defend them is exhilarating.
As the pastor of First Reformed, a small, sparsely-attended chapel in upstate New York, Toller has grown accustomed to preaching to mostly empty pews. The church is now primarily a tourist attraction thanks to its historical significance as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Toller spends more time giving tours than offering spiritual guidance. The only reason the church continues to operate at all is because of the continued financial assistance of Abundant Life, a nearby mega-church run by the affable Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer).
Toller's own health is failing, and he's taken to drinking heavily. In the midst of his spiritual and physical unraveling, he decides to keep a daily diary confessing his innermost thoughts, which we hear read by Hawke in voiceover. We learn that he became a man of the cloth as a means to cope with his own grief after his son was killed in the Iraq war just 6 months after Toller first encouraged him to enlist.
One of Schrader's best films in years, "First Reformed" grapples with the same question that plagues its lead character: How can God forgive humanity for so spectacularly mucking up his creation? It shares Toller's grim outlook on the state of world, offering a gimlet-eyed look at the corporatization and hypocrisy of a church that seems to have abandoned its moral obligations -- and with it, its potential to be a beacon of hope in a world shrouded in darkness.
Michael's convictions gradually worm their way into Toller's head, and later he posts a version of the younger man's question on the marquee outside his church. This newly radical mindset puts him at odds with Jeffers, who's helping Toller plan a lavish reconsecration ceremony in honor of First Reformed's 250th anniversary. The chief donor for the event is Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local industrialist whose corporations have done more than their share to pollute the world over the years. But his money makes him inextricable from the church; during one of their planning meetings, Balq demands Toller remove "anything political" from the service.
As Toller becomes increasingly driven toward impulsive, desperate action, what begins as an introspective meditation on despair builds to a story practically vibrating with political rage. But there's tenderness to the film as well; all that despair can't exist without hope, and the violence of youthful anger and extremism coexists with moments of startling grace.
The austere photography of cinematographer Alexander Dynan emphasizes the story's uneasy stillness and bleak, wintry landscapes. Shooting in a tight 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the frame boxes the characters in, creating the sense that there are few alternate paths open to them.
Schrader's film wears its influences on its sleeve: it shares the basic premise of Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" and a main character that feels like a contemporary version of that in Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest." It's also got shades of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," another story written by Schrader, about a lost, angry man searching desperately for a purpose.
"First Reformed" deals honestly with the subject of spirituality, wrestling with metaphysical questions in a way far deeper than typical "faith-based" cinema. Schrader's more interested in challenging his viewers than in offering the type of inspirational platitudes typically doled out by movies pitched at the "God's Not Dead" crowd. It's a bruising experience, one that left even a non-religious person like me feeling shaken. There's a sense of existential unease to the film, not easily dismissed after the credits roll.