There is Catholic guilt, and then there is Protestant dread. First Reformed, the new film by Paul Schrader, who was raised as a Calvinist, opens with a slow approach to a white-walled church, which looms amid headstones and naked trees to take on the aspect of a crypt – or, this being New York, the land of Melville, a beached whale. The square frame of the camera contains each shot in the manner of a walled cell.
Founded in 1767, the eponymous First Reformed parish runs on donated funds from a nearby megachurch called Abundant Life where the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) draws crowds of thousands to Sunday services each week. The Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) emerges from the First Reformed sacristy to the sight of fewer than 10 congregants on a typical Sunday. But the two churches share the colour of their carpets: a muted red-brown that resembles something between dried blood and rust.
In the evenings, Toller returns to the attached parsonage where he drinks, writes in his journal and tries to pray. Paint cracks away in great flakes from the walls and ceilings; we observe Toller reflected in mirrors as he writes, attempting to capture a reflection of his own life. He suffers from painful urination and frequent stomach aches, and spends nights in the pews of his church. “How easily they talk about prayer,” he writes, “those who have never really prayed.”
Toller is in despair. A pregnant woman in his congregation named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to meet her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, and Toller finds someone who understands his condition from within. Michael wants his wife to abort their baby because he cannot countenance the act of bringing a new life into a dying world. “Can God forgive us?” he asks Toller during their meeting at his home. Behind him, a laptop cycles through slides that chart the earth’s rising temperatures across decades; his walls are covered in images of oil spills, starving polar bears and fellow activists who have died for the sake of their cause. He asks whether these deceased could be considered martyrs.
On the matter of forgiveness for the devastation humankind has wrought across the globe, Toller responds: “Who can know the mind of God?” Portions of his responses to Michael’s anguished questions become inaudible as his self-narration picks up: “I felt like Jacob wrestling the angel.” The camera looks down at him in a low chair, encouraging us to judge him for being unable to escape his ego. But the aside is prescient, and Toller leaves the conversation with a limp.
Like the master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu – a practitioner of what Schrader has called “transcendental style in film” – Schrader uses stationary cameras to capture almost every scene, and this lends First Reformed a quiet sublimity. Characters appear in the film as flat portraits captured using direct 90-degree shots, their faces lit to suggest the mysteries of iconography. In this context, a moving camera is a portent. When Toller meets Mary at the house she shares with Michael while he is at work, the camera rolls to track the pair as Mary unexpectedly leads Toller away from the front of the house and down the driveway to the garage, where she has something to show him. Something begins to move in Toller. His actions reflect motivations that are unknown even to him.
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