Screen Time

The spiritual desert of First Reformed's minister

Ernst Toller is not so different from the male anti-heroes at the heart of Paul Schrader's earlier, more sensational films.

“The Christian life is full of discernment,” says the Rev­er­end Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor of a 250-year-old church in a small town in upstate New York. These are words he is writing in his journal, spoken as a voice-over while we watch him pour Drano down a clogged toilet. Paul Schrader’s film First Re­formed is replete with these juxtapositions: quotidian details of an ascetic life overlaid with expressions of spiritual anguish, self-scrutiny, and sometimes wisdom.

Schrader became famous for writing Mar­tin Scorsese’s early films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, master works showing masculine anxiety wrapped in violence. He is also the son of a strict Calvinist pastor and a graduate of Calvin College. Though he has openly left the church and the faith, he is still fascinated by them and by the pastoral vocation.

Toller is not so different from the male antiheroes at the heart of Schra­der’s earlier, more sensational films. He is obsessed with just how much whole-hearted commitment a spiritual vocation demands. This is Schrader’s quiet­est film, literally and emotionally, but he has invested its core questions of spiritual meaning and faithfulness with deadly seriousness.