As The World Burns

Paul Schrader returns with a statement on Christianity

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

First Reformed
Roxy Theatre
Opens Friday 29
4 out of 5

The Bible is having a moment and it’s not a good one. Despicable characters in the Trump Administration use the book to justify separating children from their families. The American president claims it’s his favourite text, even though you just know the notorious dimwit has never opened it. He’s too busy talking about how he wants people to stand at attention for him like North Koreans do for Kim Jong Un.

The so-called good book is pivotal in First Reformed, director Paul Schrader’s best film in about two decades, and one that’s being compared — with reason — to Taxi Driver. Terrific writing is accompanied by allegoric visuals and a setting that oozes alienation.

The heavy drama revolves around Reverend Toller (a superb Ethan Hawke), the minister in charge of a minuscule church/museum in Albany, New York. While his congregation is small, it’s not short on problems. Mary, a pregnant churchgoer (Amanda Seyfried) needs Toller’s help: her depressed husband, Michael — an environmentalist — would rather his wife abort their baby than bring another soul into an overpopulated planet on the verge of collapse. Given that 17 of the last 18 years have been the hottest on record, the North Pole is melting and we’re in the middle of the planet’s sixth mass extinction — all thanks to human activity — his very depressing reasoning is sound.

Toller begins to think like Michael. Unfortunately the reverend’s newfound environmentalism is a poor match for Abundant Life, the megachurch that supports First Reformed. Abundant Life is largely funded by industrialist Edward Balq, a polluter who believes throwing money at Christians buys him absolution for his sins.

More than crimes against the environment, First Reformed is about so-called Christians who march alongside captains of industry, collecting any change that jiggles loose. Schrader (who has a theological background) points out with extreme clarity that godliness and prosperity do NOT go together and plainly shows the dangerous consequences of this belief.

In one of the film’s lightest moments, Abundant Life’s Pastor Jeffers is unable to counter Toller’s pro-environment arguments using scripture, so he just drops the façade and gives the reverend an economic argument: there would be no mega-churches without rich patrons. A rare moment of honesty the world’s Joel Osteens and Franklin Grahams are incapable of.

Toller’s faith is another major topic in First Reformed. Unlike oh-so-many flicks about religious people in crisis, Ethan Hawke underplays it. The reverend keeps the conflict eating him up close to the chest — he drinks too much and doesn’t take care of himself, but manages to keep up an appearance of normalcy. It’s not that he’s stopped believing in God: Toller just doesn’t think highly of humanity, and despair has overtaken his sense of purpose. Mary (HINT, HINT) keeps him going for a bit longer but it’s clear there’s an expiration date in sight. The question is, what’s the reverend willing to do to make his departure meaningful? One of the few certainties he has left is the idea that only revolutionary acts can make a difference.

The ending is bound to divide moviegoers, as its matter-of-fact approach gives way to a more esoteric sequence. Weirdly, the conclusion could help one better understand Taxi Driver’s ending. These two movies would make one hell of a double bill.