‘First Reformed’ asks troubling questions, provides few answers

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Are ecoterrorists simply terrorists, or are they martyrs?

This is the question plaguing Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) in “First Reformed,” as the film follows his tortured descent into anxiety and despair. Unfortunately, it’s also a question that the film itself refuses to answer. While the plot toys with taking a definitive stance, it ultimately remains noncommittal.

Reverend Toller serves as the pastor for First Reformed Church — a historical church that is nicknamed the “souvenir shop” by its parent megachurch Abundant Life just up the road. Toller is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is concerned for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary explains that Michael has grown increasingly radical in his environmental activism and is upset that Mary is pregnant, as he does not believe it is right to bring a child into this world.

While Toller begins as a tempering force to Michael’s despair, the reverend is eventually caught up in Michael’s anxieties and grows increasingly burdened by what seems to be the inevitable collapse of creation as we know it. The narrative asks what possible response a person could have in the face of overwhelming systemic evils. It then tries to put forth a thesis on what is wrong with this world — a problem that encompasses this generation, politics and spirituality. Ultimately, this is where the film falters. It sets up a host of questions and moral quandaries but does not follow through.

Written and directed by Paul Schrader, this film joins “Taxi Driver” as yet another testament to the way Schrader’s screenplays cut to the core of society’s psyche. “First Reformed” is uncomfortable in a way that is equal parts unsettling and impossible to turn away from. Set in upstate New York in winter, the landscape is bleak and gray. The stylistic components of the film are one of its two greatest strengths (the other being Hawke’s performance). Austere set design accents the claustrophobic framing of each scene, the two combining to sustain the tension throughout the film’s run time.

In the midst of this confinement, Toller continues his downward spiral. Hawke holds himself so rigidly, his character acting so unpredictably, that the effect is one of constant anxiety. Hawke’s narration is the principal reason this film feels unbearably personal, as the film displays behavior that the reverend clearly does not want to be known. As a result, the audience winds up drawn into his psyche — the torment is not experienced by Toller alone.

Just when it seems the suspense could not be stretched any more taut, the film suddenly loses its narration, the one point of access for the audience to judge just how much Hawke’s character has succumbed to the blackness. This moment is also when the film loses its sense of direction. While an emphasis on ambiguity can accent a plot, this effect is missing within “First Reformed.” When the credits roll, audience members are left feeling as if there wasn’t a conclusion at all.

“First Reformed” is not a movie for everyone. It straddles the line between effectively esoteric and unnecessarily strange, at times stepping closer to the latter than might be preferred. But at the same time, the movie is deeply affecting.

For better or worse, it is a movie that stays with you. Toller’s arc gives voice to the anxiety over whether we have reached the point of no return in terms of climate change. Given that concern over this question only grows as the U.S. political administration chips away at environmental protection policies, it’s hard not to be drawn into Toller’s breakdown.

Considering the grim state of the real world, the film’s choice to not attempt to counter the despair it presents is wholly difficult to watch.

Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].