In Schrader’s most iconic work, Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle’s voiceover put the viewer inside his fractured mind. Decades later, Schrader uses Toller’s journal to do the same, but this is just the immersive starting point. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is in a compressed ratio, the black bars of the screen squeezing the characters beyond their already claustrophobic states. The film also conveys a sense of impending doom around the church’s big anniversary, a dreaded event that Toller can barely tolerate and a small-scale equivalent of crisis points brought on by rising temperatures. Schrader is a master of mood. He creates a world where nothing is going to get better, where moral compromises accumulate into piles of toxic sludge, where even aesthetic pleasure is a near-impossibility. Michael makes a prophecy of environmental collapse, but it’s difficult to imagine a more pervasively pessimistic world than the one that already exists in the film.
At this moment in history, a cinematic statement resigned to degradation and collapse isn’t only imaginable, it’s preaching to the left-leaning choir who are most likely to find their way to an indie character study. In Toller, Schrader finds a mirror for the state of the planet, afflicting him with stomach pains that may or may not be cancer, an illness that may or may not have been brought on by the contaminated waterways of upstate New York. One of those contaminators, malignant industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), is set to play a big part at the anniversary celebration, forcing Toller to share the stage with a man whose life’s work is the antithesis of what he views his own to be. Balq is a sour figure in First Reformed, the embodiment of willful blindness that celebrates a rosy past and ignores the future. His wealth is not enough for his ego; he must also be praised in public at every opportunity by people with supposed moral heft, a polluter who wants credit for installing recycling bins in his facilities. He’s the kind of billionaire who’s actively working towards environmental disaster while pricing out missile silos to live in when everything goes south.
The business-led scourging of the earth is not enough for Schrader. He also has choice words for the specific kind of religion practiced by Jeffers. It’s possible that Toller’s dourness is simply not what people want to hear in a marketplace of ideas, and Jeffers’ affirming brand genuinely fills the seats. Therefore, the vast differences in their congregation and their churches are people making up their minds on where they want to be every Sunday. That charitable stance is not where First Reformed is placing its nickel. Where Toller challenges Balq, Jeffers recognizes him as a vital source of patronage. I doubt that Schrader is a religious man, but it’s clear that if he was, his vision of the role of religion is that of a counterweight to raw power, not a reinforcer. Toller is enacting a Christ-like vision when he refuses to comfort the comfortable or when he doesn’t preach the opiate of Jesus wanting his followers to be wealthy. It’s no accident that telling people what they want to hear is shown to result in a megachurch with a full cafeteria and luxurious seats and complacent, credulous members.
For as potent and righteous as a polemic against conservative forces like corporations and religion would be, Schrader has higher-minded aims than the cinematic equivalent of a Think Progress screed. While Balq is given no respite, Jeffers communicates the film’s most profound theme. He reminds Toller that Jesus didn’t spend all his time in the garden of Gethsamane, lamenting his coming death. He eventually got off his knees and went out into the streets and the market, translating his despair into something more productive. If Toller had never met Mary, he would’ve just found something else to wallow in. First Reformed knows how easy pessimism is, how little effort it takes to lament the species and throw one’s hands up at their collective uselessness. What’s hard is to know it and continue on, maybe chipping away at some ignorance or callousness but not shrinking from the effort. Michael is shown to be paralyzed by his fears, contemplating taking action but too sure of how little impact he’ll ultimately have. Balq doesn’t have that trepidation, and he’ll continue to bring his visions into reality if those that oppose him are equally paralyzed.
The role of Ernst Toller is in the running for Ethan Hawke’s most affecting role, a highlight of a career that contains plenty of competition. His go-to move here comes whenever Toller is waiting out a conversation, as Hawke looks into the middle distance and nods and fibs and prods things to a place where he can escape. It’s an encapsulation of his deeper issues, a refusal to tolerate anything that isn’t exactly what he wants to do in a single facial expression. When he isn’t pursing his lips in polite frustration, Toller is seething with indignation at nearly everyone, including himself. The Mansana’s are something of an island for him. Michael is an intellectual challenge, and their big discussion, despite the gravity of their subject, is invigorating for the viewer and for Toller. Mary is an emotional challenge. The slightly-idealized character is played by Seyfried as a font of warmth, such that if Toller can’t appreciate her, then he’s too far gone.
One of my favorite films of the decade is John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, another character study of a man of the cloth trying and failing to shepherd his flock. These kinds of films that question the role of religion in a world that’s leaving it behind are intensely interesting, and another of its kind joins Calvary on the list of the decade’s best films. First Reformed is a titanic work from one of modern cinema’s progenitors, as relevant to future audiences as Taxi Driver is to modern ones. I’d get out of the garden and into the market for First Reformed, gladly evangelizing for its dark charms and heady themes. A