December 14th, 2018

Death Chess

Compulsive Correction

Many have drawn comparisons between some of the most extreme political rhetoric of to-day with Puritanism but 2018's First Reformed makes the connexion with extraordinary eloquence and consideration. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it's a bit like a cross between Taxi Driver (which had a screenplay by Schrader) and Bergman's Winter Light. It's the story of a man coming to the end of a rope lead by demons of guilt and conscience, his every step defined by contradictions and seemingly solid, clear, deadly focused rational. Ethan Hawke in the lead role is better than I've ever seen him before and Schrader's filmmaking style is quiet, clear, and powerfully ominous.

Hawke plays Reverend Toller who's in charge of a small, two hundred fifty year old Protestant church in upstate New York. He's got a little bit of a swagger about him and an abruptness that seems out of place with his sincerity and kindness until we find out he used to be a military chaplain. We also learn he had a son who died in Iraq after Toller had encouraged him to enlist because it was family tradition.

One day a young woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to speak with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), about whom she's very worried. Michael is a hardcore environmentalist activist. He wanted Mary, who's twelve weeks pregnant, to get an abortion because he knows there's no hope for the world, that climate change is now an irreversible downward spiral. He doesn't think it's right to bring a child into the world.

Toller, in voice over narration explained by a diary he's keeping for a year, says his discussion with Michael felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is one of the more intellectually stimulating dialogues in recent film history as Toller tries to explain why Michael and Mary should have and care for a child for reasons beyond religious prohibitions on abortion. He explains to Michael that there can be no hope without despair, that life is about holding contradictory ideas simultaneously.

There's plenty about Toller that's contradictory. Like Travis Bickle, he likes to drink even as his judgements on others become less and less yielding as the film progresses. And like Travis Bickle, you can't argue he's all wrong. As Toller increasingly shares Michael's point of view, we can certainly understand the anger he feels at the businessmen and even the man in charge of the megachurch that now owns Toller's church, Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). People who have profited directly or indirectly by the destruction of the natural ecosystem.

Schrader and Hawke never flatten Toller, we see the reasons for every step on the path he takes, the exact nature of the questions that torment him and why there's an irredeemable guilt he only half perceives. The problems of climate change and the Iraq war neatly translate into centuries old Puritan psychology in Toller. He's intelligent and wise but it doesn't keep him from abusing alcohol to the point of permanently damaging his health, nor does it keep him from pushing away people who care for him. That may be the greatest difference between Toller and Travis Bickle; Toller's compulsions are driven by a sense of inadequacy and hatred for anyone who does not share in that perception of his inadequacy.

The end of the film, I suspect, is a hallucination, though Schrader leaves it ambiguous. In any case, it makes clear exactly what he tries to tell Michael earlier in the film and what Jeffers tries to tell him--no perfect system or rationale has yet been invented to administer the fundamental needs of humanity. Ignoring this truth, even in the interest of justice, can have disastrous consequences.

First Reformed is free with Amazon Prime.