Sometime in the mid-2000s, back when I would do this kind of thing regularly, I found myself at an outdoor punk show at a squat/co-op in the Marigny, waiting to see a traveling hardcore band called Talk Me Off. One of the opening acts, the only one I honestly remember, was not another noisy rock act, but rather a slideshow and a political sermon. I sat in the warm, boot-stomped grass listening to a lengthy spiel about an environmental activist group’s successes in deforestation protests, patiently nodding along with the local punks who were gracious to not nod off entirely. I was mentally transported back to that oddly booked punk show this week while watching Paul Schrader’s latest directorial effort, First Reformed. Like the environmentally-minded slideshow enthusiasts who did their best to keep a gaggle of riled-up punks’ attention that night, First Reformed offers an admirable political sermon about modern humanity’s responsibility in the face of world-devastating climate change, but in an entertainment medium that’s not especially useful or interesting. Both Schrader and those real-life activists made a worthwhile political point in their respective sermons, but they did so in such bizarrely niche settings that they were essentially preaching to the already-converted. Given the audience & the delivery in both settings, it all just felt like wasted effort.
Hawke stars in First Reformed as Reverend Toller, an alcoholic holy man in crisis. His crisis of Faith is slightly different from the usual Silence of God anxieties expressed by Bergman & Scorsese in the past. He’s more worried here about whether humanity deserves God’s forgiveness for what it’s done to a planet in peril. He preaches to a tiny congregation in a historical church in Albany, New York that has become more of a souvenir shop than an effective religious institution. Cedric the Entertainer costars as the pastor of a nearby, nondenominational megachurch that is much more successful in reaching people (and making money), but also fearful of alienating its patrons with substantial political rhetoric. The politics of modern religion weigh on Reverend Toller’s mind with great anguish as he counsels a young mother from his delegation (Amanda Seyfried), who is afraid she is losing her husband to radical environmental activist causes. Long, drawn-out theological discussions about what Earth will look like in 2050 and what responsibility Christian leadership has in challenging political apathy to the world’s gradual destruction eat up most of the film’s runtime, often in hideous digital photography close-ups. Occasional bursts of violence or slips into supernatural mediation will disrupt these theological & political debates, but for the most part the film is an environmentalist tirade that alternates between being a frustrated call to action and a gradual acceptance of humanity’s impending doom.
There’s a clear parallel between Reverend Toller’s voiceover narration here and the similarly structured sermons Robert De Niro delivers in Schrader’s early-career script for Taxi Driver. The difference is that Toller’s righteous, dangerously violent theological stance actually has a worthwhile point to it, while Bickle’s misanthropy was coded as vile moral decay. Toller shares many of Bickle’s self-destructive tendencies, barely covering up his declining health with gallons of hard liquor & Pepto Bismol as he limps towards making a grand political statement at the film’s cathartic end. There might a figurative correlation between his failing body and the continual desecration of the planet, but for the most part his deliberately poor health recalls the self-destructive martyrdom that runs throughout Taxi Driver as well. Toller also shares Bickle’s unseemly sexual repression (a very common theme in Schrader’s writing), but doesn’t allow that guilt to express itself externally in as pronounced of a way. The main difference between them is that Bickle’s “cause” was mostly an excuse to enact male rage in a society that he found despicable for (to put it lightly) questionable reasons, while Toller’s own moral anguish about humanity’s negative impact on the planet actually as a point. The agreeability of the moral outrage makes the approach much less distinct & engaging in the process, leaving only room for the audience to nod along in recognition. The comparison also does First Reformed no favors in that Scorsese directed the hell out of Taxi Driver, capturing one of the dingiest visions of NYC grime to ever stain celluloid, while Schrader’s vision only escapes the limitations of its digital cinematography in two standout scenes (you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em) and the production design choice of a really cool, eyeball-shaped lamp.
It’s probably safe to say that Schrader is well aware that First Reformed is “a little preachy,” but I think it’s worth questioning who, exactly, he’s preaching to. I can’t deny the truth of a character pleading that the Earth’s destruction “isn’t some distant future. You will live to see this,” but it’s likely to safe to say that the arthouse cinema crowd who will turn out for this picture in the first place already knows that. Reductively speaking, First Reformed is two good scenes & one great lamp, all tied together by an agreeable political sermon. That’s not going to do much to grab the attention of anyone besides the people who already support your cause, no more so than dragging our slide projector out to a late-night punk show. Without Travis Bickle’s moral repugnance making his physical & mental decline a complexly difficult crisis to engage with, Reverend Toller’s unraveling feels like a much less interesting, less essential retread of territory Schrader has explored onscreen before, even if the political anxiety driving it this time is more relatable.