Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) presides over a small church of historical significance, since it is approaching its two-hundred and fiftieth anniversary, having been part of the Underground Railroad in its early days, though now it is largely visited as a tourist destination, and the congregation is sparse. He has been worried about his health recently, taken to drinking to ease the pain in his stomach, and not making matters any better is his increasing feeling of isolation, so when a member of his flock, pregnant young wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to him expressing worries about her husband, he sees this as a way of doing something positive - but darkness is encroaching.
Writer and director Paul Schrader is not one to do anything by halves, and you either committed to his films or you did not, some easier to go along with than others when his quality control appeared to be so shaky in many cases. Yet every so often he would really achieve what he set out to do, and if you did not wish to follow him on his journey then you could well understand that as in a work like First Reformed he was so uncompromising, to the point of absurdity, that it was perhaps a little too easy to laugh nervously, as if a stranger you had struck up a conversation with took an abrupt turn into discussing their deepest and grimmest thoughts without any warning. How do you react?
It was not simple to discuss someone else's mental crisis, even if you are sympathetic, even though there are plenty of movies that present characters going through exactly that; First Reformed made many of those come across like a spot of indigestion, such was the cavernous desolation Toller was suffering. This was a deliberately paced effort, just to make the audience feel every step of the protagonist's road to oblivion, but if you've ever tried to bring up a deadly serious subject and found that people just don't want to go into it, and would prefer to make light, or even make fun of you for even considering things are not as rosy as the optimists would prefer to see them as, this struck a chord.
Toller wants to be taken seriously, he wants the world to be taken seriously too, and no wonder as he has had tragedy in his life when his son was killed in the Iraq war a while ago, so when Mary's husband agrees to chat with him and reveals himself to be consumed with horror at the potential for humanity's self-destruction through pollution and global warming, something nobody is tackling to any great effect as far as he can see, Toller can empathise. But what if he cannot help? Mary is frightened her husband wants to kill their baby since he cannot imagine anything worse than bringing a new life onto a planet that is blindly going to Hell, and Toller realises this is what he believes as well, not that he could ever admit it. There is nobody he can talk to, since the reaction to his fears will be to lighten up or not to let things get him down so much.
Toller cannot go along with that, and his loneliness is unable to be assuaged by those around him who are either frivolous or embracing a mindset that is corrupt and hateful. He begins to ponder what he could possibly do to bring the message of God into society that will be impossible to ignore, even if he is not one hundred percent certain what the Almighty wants him to do; but this is not a crisis of faith, not his own as he has, if anything, an abundance of that, it is a crisis in everyone else's faith as he can only regard humanity as a suicidal group of lost souls. So if everyone is dead set on the path to self-destruction, including the megachurch he answers to (run by Cedric the Entertainer on incisive form), should he join in too, or make his self-destruction so wretched that in his Christian style his sacrifice will wake up the consciousness of the globe? Religion playing its part as a force for chaos as well as good, maybe an either/or situation.
Hawke was tremendous here in a weirdly moving portrayal of a man at the end of his tether, and though Schrader's latter choices in his depiction of spirituality which may or may not be occurring in reality divided audiences, they were so striking that if you were appreciative, you would admire his gall in going as far as he did. As often with this director's male leads, the salvation is represented by a woman, and Seyfried was that for Hawke's quietly anguished holy man, underlining that the absence of affection can lead a man to destroying themselves internally, or others externally - it might be a cliché, but for Schrader's men the love of a good woman can mean the difference between life and death. For anyone who has had their own long, dark night of the soul and isn't sure they've emerged from the other side, First Reformed would strike a nerve, yes, it could be bravely silly, but there was something deeply humane in how far it was willing to go in addressing the dejection everyone feels at one point in their existence, and if they’re lucky, at only one point. Meanwhile God remains unknowable. Music by Brian Williams, appropriately ominous.