This uneven at best Roman Catholic – I know, it concerns a protestant church, but who are we trying to kid? – eco-guilt picture from Paul Schrader that has been hailed as his best in years. Which it probably is, but these things are relative. Schrader has made, for the first hour or so, a reasonably engrossing study of faith, doubt and despair, but his choices after that, particularly during the last half hour, undo much of the effort.
As one of Hollywood’s go-to practising Catholics (step forward also Marty) it should be no surprise that Schrader’s appreciation of belief is a very literal, screedy one, where anything more nebulous and, dare I say, spiritual is left for the birds (a similar issue haunted Scorsese’s otherwise sterling Silence).
These filmmakers are, essentially, admitting to wrapping themselves in an empty shell of religion, one that offers no real comfort or solace; so why do it? Why even attach a label to oneself if it provides no fulfilment (the answer being, presumably, once a Catholic always a Catholic)? Here, Schrader’s cinematic surrogate is Ethan Hawke’s severe and introspective Reverend Toller, wrestling with his faith even before the husband (Michael, played by Philip Ettinger) of one of his congregants (Amanda Seyfried’s Mary – who is pregnant! Of course she is!) blows his brains out after receiving counsel from him.
Michael, neither a believer nor scathing of the pastor’s views, confessed his environmental woes to Toller, how he considered it wrong to bring a child into a planet bent on destruction. “Can God forgive us? For what we’ve done to his world?” he asks, to which Toller is diplomatically neutral because he has no idea (“Who can know the mind of God?“). Michael also informs Toller that the world has reached its tipping point and that collapse isn’t in some distant future; “You will live to see this“.
It seems Michael’s demise is Toller’s personal tipping point, but in his depiction of this, or lack of depiction thereof, Schrader allows his film to get away from him. Toller rather abruptly assumes the mantle of deranged enviro-activist when he retains, rather than disposes of, Michael’s suicide vest. Yes, Schroder has summoned the ghost of Travis Bickle.
This Taxi Driver impulse entirely gets in the way, and makes what had the makings of a mature, reflective work seem rather silly and worse lazy. Father Toller taking on Michael’s environmental cause is the least effective way of Schrader broadcasting a big issue, since it undermines the character and the sense that the writer-director is able to tell his story in any kind of measured way. Now he has another string to his doom-laden bow, besides despair at religion: despair at the future of the planet (why only now?) When Toller then dons a suicide vest, ready to blow away a church full of unworthies, we lose any sense that Schrader thought his character through at all.
The result is that Toller’s an incoherent mess, and the solid work put in by Hawke comes to naught. There’s no grounding whatsoever for the leap Toller makes from troubled pastor to someone ready to kill a congregation. Yes, he’s depressed, has lost his son, his marriage, has (most likely) stomach cancer, a drinking problem and is seeking answers to his crisis of faith through the study of deep religious thinkers. And he feels in some way responsible for Michael’s suicide.
But does any of that suddenly flick a switch to make him a mass murderer (or, as I guess we’re intended to see him seeing himself, a self-appointed martyr to a cause)? With Taxi Driver, the millstone of quality around Schrader’s subsequent career, we are aware of Travis Bickle’s psychotic break from the start. It’s never in any doubt that he’s unable to track a common wavelength. In contrast, it’s never less than clear that Toller knows precisely moral right from wrong, so the adjustment Schrader makes seems almost puerile. Almost as puerile is Toller symbolically wrapping himself in barbed wire before failing to administer a fatal dose of drain cleaner.
The best sequences come early, as the pastor engages in philosophical debate with Michael. Schrader can’t hide how this invigorates him as a writer, such that he has Toller comment as much in his journal (“I felt like I was Jacob wrestling all nightlong with the angel. It was exhilarating“).
It’s rarely a good idea to become too wrapped up in what you think a film should be, rather than what it is, but if Schrader had resisted the inclination to pursue dramatic hyperbole, and maintained these low-key contemplative lines instead, he might have come up with something really special (particularly since Toller struts forward an interesting philosophical line that invites further discussion, with regard to hope and despair and how “Holding these two ideas in your head is life itself“).
Instead, we quickly lose the thread of inquiry, and we’re left with more familiar tropes, of corrupt corporations and opportunistic ministers. There’s the occasional gimmer of the same interrogatory spirit, such as with the angry young support group attendee set on denouncing the poor, Toller given to opine how all responses have become ones of extremes, but it’s only occasional.
Perhaps the best is Reverend Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer) calling out Toller for being such a misery guts (seriously, it’s no surprise his church is all but empty) and responding to the pastor’s “You think God wants to destroy his creation?” with a scriptural trump card: “He did once for forty days and forty nights“. Much as it may sound like anathema, it’s (contextually) a reasonable argument, certainly no less valid than Toller’s responding to requests to understand why bad things happen to good Christian people.
But Schrader sacrifices this for something altogether more emptily cathartic. He chooses to grant Toller salvation through the laziest of devices, a woman half his age barely given a character of her own; the substitute “spiritual” experience of the film is his non-sexual union with Mary, in which he flies over an unspoilt natural landscape, only for it to descend into a hell of belching chimneys, toxic waste and rubbish. Subtle it ain’t.
Toller finds “redemption” in the advice he gave Michael in relation to bringing new life into the world, his self-preservation instinct winning out (we could call it love, but Schrader has already rejected spirituality as attainable, so this must just be death as an aphrodisiac, infatuation spurred by the thought of imminent demise). He has, after all, rejected old maid Esther (“I despise you. I despise what you bring out in me“). Ultimately, he rests easy in the shallow, which is what Schrader does in the dramatic – or banal – fireworks of his finale.
First Reformed is an austere, bristly film, so reflecting Schrader’s temperament (he prefers those empty, desolate churches to the charismatic ones), and if it had maintained that tone, keeping to a straight- and-narrow thematic and philosophical line, it might have been a good one. But the lurch into melodrama is fatal; the worst thing you can say about such a sombre picture is that it ends up rather silly, but it does.