A Protestant pastor in upstate New York counsels troubled youths while preparing for his church’s 250th anniversary celebration. That’s not the first narrative that comes to mind for a spiritual sequel to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 antihero landmark Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader. But First Reformed, both written and directed by Schrader, comes about as close as any movie ever has to resurrecting Taxi Driver’s miserable, mesmerizing spirit.
And yes, most of it takes place in a church.
Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle was a working class misanthrope who found meaning in a misguided mission to assassinate a presidential candidate. Bickle was, perhaps, cinema’s first real reckoning with toxic masculinity, before anyone knew what that was. He loathed and loved the dirty, degenerate New York City of the 1970s, a hellhole teeming with hookers and criminals. Bickle never seemed to realize he fit right in. The city was a scapegoat for his inner demons, and the perfect setting for him to let them loose.
First Reformed updates and globalizes Bickle’s turmoil for 2018. It’s no longer just the mean streets of Manhattan that are corrupt and troubling, but the entire world. This is a different sort of degeneration, well-hidden and deeply embedded all over the world. In 2018, corporations call the shots even in the most unassuming of places, like the First Reformed church. It’s a quaint Dutch colonial house of worship with a modest following, 250 years old, run by the solemn and soft-spoken Revered Toller (Ethan Hawke). First Reformed only survives thanks to its association with Abundant Life, a modern megachurch, which in turn owes its survival to donations from BALQ, a fossil fuel firm. In First Reformed, even God answers to a higher power: capitalism.
Early on, a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) begs Reverend Toller to speak with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is an environmental activist who has run afoul of the law. He’s reluctant to bring a child into this world, fearing that pollution and climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable for her generation. Toller and Michael could hardly be further apart in ideology, but both lay out their ideas persuasively. Michael shares tragedies of other activists whose resistance was futile, citing scientific consensus on the planet’s dire predicament. Reverend Toller, on the other hand, says that man has always been plagued by such doubts, but it’s both hope and that despair that make us human.
Michael takes little solace in the Reverend’s spiritual counsel, but Michael’s words have a lasting impact on Toller. Toller begins scrutinizing the pious world around him, seeing connections and hidden motivations he didn’t notice before. He is warned “not to get political” in his sermons, since corporate interests now take precedence over God’s word. Toller’s own spiritual counselor, Pastor Jeffers, shows skill as a manager but very little reverence. He may as well be the CEO of Walmart for all his religiosity. Michael and Mary become the only people he can truly connect to anymore.
Like Travis Bickle, Toller narrates his thoughts via journal, though in Toller’s case it serves as more of a counterpoint to what he’s actually experiencing — not just a crisis of faith, but a crisis of everything. Slowly but surely, he unravels as the buttoned-up Christian we were introduced to. He tries radicalism on for size. Like Bickle, Toller’s motives are muddled. We’re not sure what he hopes to accomplish, if anything; did Bickle have a real objective for shooting Palantine? For both men, extreme acts are an expression of inner turmoil, using ideology as excuse. Even the greatest atrocities are committed by people who believe they’re on the right side of history. Taxi Driver takes us disturbingly deep into Bickle’s damaged psyche, and though we never really like him, we know he still believes he’s the good guy all the while. In the end, he takes on the evils of prostitution, saving young Iris (Jodie Foster) and being celebrated as a vigilante. Reverend Toller is also motivated by what he believes is morally right, though the lines between good and evil in First Reformed are much murkier than they were in 1976’s seedy New York City. These comparisons to Taxi Driver are useful at a thematic level, though these similarities fly under the radar aesthetically. With its squarish aspect ratio and restrained cinematography, Schrader’s direction has little in common with Scorsese’s stylings. This is not, thankfully, just “Taxi Driver Goes To Church.”
First Reformed is difficult to digest. It questions the form and function of religion in the 21st century, highlighting ways that some modern Christians have strayed from Jesus Christ’s core teachings. At the same time, it explores Christianity’s morbid iconography and bloodstained past. (“Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” is a lyric we teach to children?) In this way, First Reformed is the most “Christian” movie you’ll see this year, stirring up our thirst for holy vengeance even as we recoil from the thought.
First Reformed belongs on a mantle with Darren Aronofsky’s mother! as cinema’s brashest, bleakest confrontation with climate change yet. It’s a movie every churchgoing Christian should see, a movie almost no churchgoing Christian will. It is both intimate and apocalyptic. It wrestles with the futility of even the most extreme acts against globally entrenched powers. It’s a bleak confrontation with the state of man, Earth, and God in 2018, and the hypnotic despair many feel when looking toward the future. It’s a counterpoint to anti-Muslim xenophobia, suggesting that even the least likely candidate can be radicalized under the right set of circumstances. And it shows us that radicalization is, perhaps, a quieter and more personal process than we think.
The film leaves us with plenty of questions, especially in a final scene that flips the script on the tone of the movie that’s come before. That, too, may be a nod to Taxi Driver. Is Schrader attempting to be glib, or perverse, or life-affirming? Or all three at once? Yes, it’s one of “those” endings, the kind that ruins the movie for some viewers. Be warned.
I’m of two minds on the film’s final moments myself, but First Reformed is too gnarled and unnerving to dismiss. It’s one of the densest, darkest films in recent memory — not because of its characters do, but because of what they think. Schrader triggers numerous modern anxieties — my stomach was in knots throughout. With only brief violence, no clear villains, and zero jump scares, First Reformed has a horror movie’s aftertaste. It depicts a world that is randomly, unfathomably bleak, and constantly reminds us that we already live there.