First Reformed is not only Paul Schrader’s most transcendental work since Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, it is one of the most beautiful and burnished films of his entire career. Set in upstate New York, it revolves around the oldest continually operating church in Albany County, the First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, and its Reverend, Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke. As the film opens, the First Reformed Church is getting prepared to celebrate its 250th anniversary and reconsecration, a process that is overseen by Abundant Life, a corporate super-church that has absorbed the First Reformed Church into its administrative purview. Headed by Reverend Joel Jeffers, played by Cedric Kyles, and sponsored by energy guru Edward Balq, played by Michael Gaston, Abundant Life couldn’t be more different – spiritually, politically, architecturally – from Toller’s mission at First Reformed. Over the course of the film, those differences intensify, thanks in part to a young couple, Michael Mansana (Philip Ettinger) and Mary Mansana (Amanda Seyfried) who ask Toller for guidance. At first, Toller learns that they are struggling with Mary’s pregnancy, since Michael, an environmental activist, doesn’t believe that it is right to bring a child into a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe. After Michael commits suicide, however, Mary and Toller discover that he was – possibly – planning an act of eco-terrorism, forcing Toller to reassess his own priorities and mission in turn, especially once it becomes clear that Balq, the sponsor of Abundant Life, has been instrumental in environment degradation.
Although that sounds like a fairly action-packed film, the atmosphere of First Reformed is extremely quiet, introspective and contemplative. In a nod to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Toller opens the film by reflecting that he has decided to keep a journal for a year, in order to record his thoughts, observations and struggles. Much of the film is driven by entries from this journal, which take the form of voiceovers and inner monologues, as Toller reflects upon events in the leadup to the reconsecration. One of the most important aspects of this journal, Toller asserts in his first entry, is that it is handwritten, meaning that he has the opportunity to consider every word and phrase that he notes down. More pervasively, perhaps, writing the journal turns it into an act of manual devotion, and even a form of prayer, since one of the key preoccupations of First Reformed will turn out to be the nature and function of prayer in an era in which the spectacle of prayer has been co-opted by corporate right-wing America – or, rather, in which corporate right-wing America has turned prayer into a spectacle, rather than the intensely personal and private communion that both Schrader and Bresson envisage. In that respect, First Reformed is as much of a contemplation of Bresson as Schrader’s own iconic book on transcendental cinema, with the key difference that Schrader sheds much of his critical distance here to immerse himself in the agonies and ecstasies that drove Bresson’s vision, rather than observing them from afar.
For that reason, Toller’s process of writing his diary feels continuous with Schrader’s process of shooting the film. More than any of his recent works, including The Canyons, First Reformed testifies to the director’s touch, and the director’s hand, exuding a contemplative intensify that makes this feel like Schrader’s own prayer, and only allows the audience into the action in a careful, gradual and deliberate manner. At moments, it feels as if we’re watching a ritual as much as a film – or Schrader’s idea of film as ritual – as the screenplay favours empty spaces, still moments and understated body language from virtually all of the characters. It’s unthinkable that this story could have been set at any other time than winter, since the cool palettes – whites, greys, light blues – of upstate New York become inextricable from Toller and Schrader’s states of mind, as do the clean surfaces, cool textures and Puritan austerity that seems to settle over every interior. Interestingly, this Puritan aesthetic is enhanced, rather than diluted, by the magisterial architecture of the Abundant Life super-church, which might be light years away, stylistically, from the modesty of the First Reformed Church, but has somehow managed to co-opt and condense the noontide quietness of its simple structure, which seems to preclude any camera movement, and to stifle and absorb the movements of any people who are occupying or traversing it.
In other words, First Reformed takes place against the late spaces that seem to suffuse so much contemporary American cinema, especially American cinema that takes place in communities once organized around whiteness. Quiet, modest and self-effacing, these late spaces testify to a public sphere that has moved elsewhere, or that has even ceased to exist, leaving a public in its wake that have no space to attach to, or properly call home. At first, Toller’s First Reformed Church, and Toller’s own presence, seems to provide this home, and this corrective to the decline of public space. Yet the great twist of the film is Toller’s gradual realisation that the serenity and stillness of the film, and of the First Reformed Church itself, doesn’t belong to him, but has instead been absorbed and colonized by the corporate interests subtending the Abundant Life organisation. If Toller can be said to have a revelation, in the early stages of the film, then this is it – a realisation that the austerity of America’s Puritan heritage has now been brokered in the name of an economic austerity that invokes the language of Christian community even as it profiteers from its destruction.
While that revelation is powerful, it is also gradual, and framed largely in terms of body language. In fact, this is probably the greatest performance of Hawke’s career at the level of body language, as he brings every aspect of his craft to bear upon evoking a man who is deteriorating and devolving from the inside out. In part, that’s because Toller is suffering from a severe gastrointestinal condition – we never find out what – that grows more serious and intrusive as the film proceeds. But it’s also a matter of Toller’s personality itself, which causes him to appear more conflicted, uptight, proud, anxious, insecure – in other words, unresolved – as the reconsecration ceremony grows near. After a while, we learn that Toller is separated from his wife, and that his son died shortly after enlisting in the War in Iraq at Toller’s insistence. Whether it is the impact of these events, however, or something more inherent to Toller’s personality, is unclear, but what is clear is that Toller is gradually dissociated from the serenity of First Reformed – which is the serenity of Abundant Life – by a tendency towards despair, doubt and depression. More and more, his diary entries testify to these feelings, and become more aphoristic and cryptic as they do so. At one point, he observes that “wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our head simultaneously – hope and despair,” since “a life without despair is a life without hope.” At another point, he comments that while some may well be “called for their gregariousness,” some, like him, are called for their loneliness…their knowledge of the encompassing emptiness of things.”
As the film presents it, however, this doubt, despair and depression is what makes Toller so powerful in his outlook, just as his inability to properly pray is where the real apprehension of ethics, justice and spirituality in the film lies. It quickly becomes clear that Toller’s journal in designed as a substitution for prayer, but even this seems inadequate, since he fills the journal with testimonies to the ongoing difficulty of prayer. At one point, he notes “how easily they talk about prayer, those who have never prayed,” while at another point he assures himself that “the desire to pray is a kind of prayer in itself.” The closest he seems to come to prayer is an experience he has with Mary Mansana after her husband has died, an experience that she tells him she used to share with her husband as well. Referred to as the Magical Mystery Tour, this requires two people to lie on top of each other, fully clothed, and stare into each other’s eyes, syncing their breaths and blinks until they are entirely mindful of one another and, through one another, mindful of the universe. For Toller and Mary, this results in the most transcendental sequence in Schrader’s entire career, since, after staring and breathing for a few minutes, they start to levitate, and then find themselves at the heart of the cosmos. From there, a montage sequence takes them through nature, cities, factory waste, and then a panoply of natural destruction, in a kind of corrective to the cosmic sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, in which it is our complicity with the devolution of cosmos into chaos that is the real subject of this sweeping, panoramic vision.
Throughout this sequence, it becomes clear that the reason Toller is unable to pray is that he is unable to testify, through prayer, to environmental catastrophe. The reasons for that inability are suggested by the final image in this cosmic montage sequence – Hanstown Kill, a local dumping ground, which is where Michael Mansana requested his ashes be scattered after he committed suicide. In one of the most affecting scenes of the film, Toller forms an outpost of the First Reformed Church in front of this industrial wasteland, following Michael’s wishes to the letter by arranging for the choir to sing Neil Young’s “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” as Mary deposits his ashes in the grimy murk. Yet when Toller meets up with Pastor Jeffers and Edward Balq, the sponsor of Abundant Life, he is admonished for having a committed a “political act,” and cautioned against using his position in the name of environmental activism, or any real activism, ever again. A quick Google search reveals that Balq has been instrumental in overturning EDA restrictions, clarifying that the reconsecration of the First Reformed Church is just his company’s way of offsetting the environmental catastrophe that they are helping to unleash upon the world, just as their support of Toller’s parish is listed, on their website, as part of their philanthropic portfolio.
What makes Schrader’s depiction of Talq and Jeffers so interesting, is that they are never overtly presented as unethical, hypocritical or deceptive. Instead, their agenda syncs up so seamlessly with the serenity of the film – the serenity exuded by Abundant Life, and absorbed from First Reformed – that it simply makes Toller’s body language more awkward and self-deprecating by comparison. Similarly, it’s clear that rational discourse – the discourse of debate, reason, realism – has been entirely absorbed by Talq and Jeffers, as they both admonish Toller, quite convincingly, for not living in the real world, despite the fact that they are both directly complicit in the impending destruction of the real world as we know it. In a world in which the very process of testimony has been so thoroughly co-opted by corporate right-wing interests, the act of testifying to that co-option is impossible, leaving Toller in a scenario in which it is literally impossible to pray, just because the language of prayer has now become inextricable from precisely what he is praying to resist.
One of the powerful insights of First Reformed, then, is that the invocation of Christianity in right-wing and corporate discourse has actually severed Christianity from its role in American public life, and its role in insisting upon an American public in the first place. As much as Abundant Life and Balq’s corporation might draw upon the serenity and austerity of the early Puritans, Toller quickly comes to see Michael, and the environmental activists he represents, as the true descendants not only of the Puritans, but of the earliest Christian martyrs. Against Jeffers’ and Balq’s insistence that he focus on the next life, Toller sees the environmental future as the Afterlife, and the very modesty of First Reformed as a key asset in staving off this catastrophic prospect for as many people as possible. After all, as Toller reminds a group of schoolchildren, the modesty of First Reformed was what allowed it to function, covertly, as a stop on the Underground Railroad, just as it is his own doubt, and his alternation between doubt and certitude, that makes his spiritual mission so powerful. By contrast, Abundant Life only has certitude, forcing Toller to finally acknowledge that doubt, dissent and despair is his form of prayer, and that the only way he can pray is by invoking and contemplating all the factors that have contributed to make prayer inaccessible to him.
In its own quiet way, then, First Reformed is one of the most visceral films about environmental catastrophe that I have seen. While it may grow more apocalyptic, it’s so quiet about its apocalyptism that its prophecies never feels like hyperbole, and indeed often play as understatement more than anything else: “the bad times, they will begin…this social structure can’t bear the pressure of multiple crises.” Reclaiming Revelation, in particular, from the realm of corporate evangelism, Scharder and Toller insist on Christianity as a sceptical and critical vocabulary for social activism – or a testimony to the limits placed on social activism by Christianity itself – to the point where the real Christians in the film only seem to be those who struggle for prayer, those for whom “the words don’t come.” Asked why she continues to come to services, Mary simply observes that “I was raised in the church and never quite let it go” – and it is that inability to ever quite let go that is the real expression of spirituality in the film, along with Schrader’s own profession of spirituality in the later part of his carer. When Toller finally takes on Michael’s mantle, and plans a terrorist attack to coincide with the moment that Talq takes the pulpit, he doesn’t simply envisage the attack for the reconsecration, but envisages the attack as the reconsecration.
These last parts of the film bear a close resemblance to the slow burn of Schrader’s other protagonists, especially recalling the later stages of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Yet Toller’s last moments are both more intense and more submerged than those of these characters as well, resulting in a series of final gestures that seemed designed to purify himself, purify the world of corporate right-wing ideology, but also to refrain from the rhetoric of purification itself, since it is so thoroughly enmeshed with what Abundant Life stands for. This sequence starts with the firsts sustained camera mobility in the entire film, as a series of point-of-view shots from Toller’s car window coincide with a series of terrorist pronouncements: “every act of preservation is an act of creation – it’s how we participate in creation.” From there, he straps on Michael’s suicide vest, as First Reformed fills for the reconsecration, which is also being livestreamed at Abundant Life. Seeing Mary enter the church throws him off course, however, and as the crowd grows more restless, he wraps barbed wire around himself and prepares to drink bleach, only for Mary to knock on the door and ask why he hasn’t arrived yet. In the final scene of the film, he takes her in his arms, barbed wire still on, and spins and kisses her manically as the camera circles and narrows on their embrace.
For a moment, it appears as if the film might have two distinct endings. First, it seems possible that this embrace will take Toller and Mary back into the cosmic space of the Magical Mystery Tour, deep into the core of their spiritual mission, and so free them from the contingencies of their bodies altogether. Second, it seems possible that the scene will go in exactly the opposite direction, and lead to a sexual coupling that definitively severs them both from First Reformed. Yet neither occurs, as Schrader’s camera reaches a manic pitch, and their embrace reaches a fever pitch, only for the film to cut abruptly and unexpectedly, leaving the audience with a few seconds of silence before the credits start to roll, accompanied only by the few shimmers of electronic white noise that have broken a largely silent film. At the final moment, then, Schrader neither rejects nor aligns himself with the church, but is – more simply – unable to let it go. In that gesture lies possibly the most transcendent moment of his career, as well as his most assured gesture, crystallising, rather than ending, a film that comments upon and and culminates his entire filmography, along with the transcendent approach to cinema that has always driven his own sense of mission.