First Reformed

FIRST REFORMED,   US, 2018.  Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Antonio Kyles, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston, Bill Hoag. Directed by Paul Schrader. 113 minutes. Rated

Definitely a film written and directed by Paul Schrader. Schrader has told stories about himself, his growing up in a Calvinist family in Michigan, first seeing a movie, a Disney, at the age of 17. The strict and sometimes puritanical principles of his Calvinist upbringing have been incorporated into the moral dilemmas of his dramas. This was true of his 1976 script for Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese.

The dramatic chemistry between New York Italianate Catholicism from Scorsese along with middle American Calvinism with Schrader was very well illustrated by The Last Temptation of Christ, an interpretation of a very human Jesus, struggling with his relationship with the father, his sacrificial destiny, support from and betrayal by his disciples.

30 years on from The Last Temptation, each filmmaker has returned to his roots. In 2016, Scorsese made a profound film on Catholicism in his picture of Jesuit missions in Japan in the 17th century. Schrader looks at a contemporary minister, his personal history, theology and spirituality, faith struggles, ministry and support of others, social critique of today’s society. It is there in his title, First Reformed.

In introducing his central character, Reverend Toler, he shows him writing a journal, reflecting on the power of words and the effect of expressing oneself in words. One of the books on the shelf is by Trappist Thomas Merton (later quoted in the film), A Life in Letters. The voice-over of the Journal continues throughout the film, commenting on the action, but Toler questioning himself as to understanding what he is doing, its effect on others.

This is particularly important when a young woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to talk with her husband (Philip Ettinger), an environmental idealist who has been in prison, he does not want a child (she is pregnant) to be brought into the contemporary world and its disaster-bent future. In fact, Toler is a listener, sensible (he has been a military chaplain), but cannot foresee the terrible consequences. Mary also finds a suicide vest with bombs in their garage. Toler takes it, hides it, not wanting Mary or her husband to be caught up with the police.

The conversation between Toler and the young man expresses current anger and anguish about climate change and denial. This is important because the situation of the film is the celebration of 250 years of the historic first Reformed Church, a second consecration, presided over by the city minister (audiences may not recognise the former Cedric the Entertainer using his actual name, Cedric Antonio Kyles). And the celebrations, the fixing of the organ, the publishing of the souvenir program and history, are all being financed by the local capitalist engineer whose factory produces all kinds of allegedly environmentally-friendly products.

In the meantime, Toler struggles with issues of prayer, the nature of prayer, discernment, the depths of faith, issues of belief, stating that wisdom is the ability to have two contrasting ideas in one’s mind, that reason will not provide solutions for problems. What is needed is courage.

Before the culmination of the film at the ceremony for the second consecration, Schrader shifts his perspective from detailed realism to a kind of magical realism, Toler and Mary, one prostrate on the other, are seen floating over the landscapes of the United States, audiences thinking environment, and their final destination, close-floating over dumps, refuse, the flotsam and jetsam of progress.

Which does prepare the audience for the finale – with audiences hoping that it will not go in the direction where it seems to be heading, dreading this. And then the film stops, black on the screen, pause, final credits.

A number have complained that this is too sudden, that they wanted a resolution. Of course, Schrader is saying that there is no conclusion, that there is the range of experience, good and bad, and the challenge to his audience to reflect, accept the challenge.

Universal                                     Released January 1st

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.