Film Review – First Reformed
The slow zoom into the First Reformed Church with “old-school” opening credits gracing the screen with an iconic scrolling type-face presents a pleasing introduction to writer and director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. We meet an introverted, middle-aged pastor, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), tasked with leading a dwindling congregation in a historic church, a church that is approaching its 250th anniversary.
Reverend Toller has some regrets and failures in his life that lead him to First Reformed. Unsure of his capacity as a counselor and a man of God, he has relied on the generosity of the Reverend Jeffers (Cedric Kyles aka Cedric the Entertainer) and First Reformed’s parent church, Abundant Life. Tollers is an alcoholic, or at least someone who deals with his inner demons with drink, yet has a sound mind, albeit a quiet one, reflecting daily on his life in a private journal. Things take a turn when he counsels a parishioner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), whose pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), is concerned about his outlook on life. Mary and Michael are a catalyst for Reverend Tollers to re-evaluate his life and his perception of God’s gifts.
There are clear themes in First Reformed as well as considerable nods to Biblical stories, like a pregnant Mary seeking refuge from the chaos. The film, to me, is a shift in perspective in the faith of what we are taught is “godly” and the realities presented in our daily lives of how we treat the Earth, a gift from God. Michael presents with depression and extreme view on conservation and radical environmentalism, one so mired in mitigating the effects of people on the Earth that he has descended a road of violence. He does not want his child to be born because of what it will face in the future. He is in despair about his future, and when he ends it all, his story continues with Reverend Toller. Seemingly unaffected by Michael’s death, the ideals and eccentricities weasel their way into the mind of Reverend Toller, leading to a shift in his perception of faith.
Ethan Hawke can sometimes be typecast into certain roles, but his take on Reverend Toller is not one of these. He presents Toller as described with hesitation and uncertainty that may be lost with another actor. Hawke inserts a mystery into Toller, one that unfolds partially as the film progresses. Hawke’s Toller never goes where one would predict, quite the opposite occurs. Even as Toller possibly comes close to the end of his own life, he is conflicted in his faith, his love, and his purpose. The close-ups provided by Paul Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan of Toller, along with narration, emphasize his reluctance to accept the role that has been placed before him.
The film takes an odd turn in the final act. There is a quizzical scene between Toller and Mary that borders on an acid trip with a mind meld mixed in. As the anniversary celebration of the church approaches, Toller grapples with the environmental catastrophes created by its biggest donor as well as his own health and faith. He plans drastic measures, ones that will forever associate his name with being an environmental terrorist. There is at least one moment of queasiness involving drain cleaner and self-mutilation (or punishing yourself for sins which usually is not highlighted in modern films).
First Reformed is an examination of faith, first and foremost, and how those around us influence our perspective. Even a Reverend in a church may not have the strongest faith and therein lies the crux of Toller. He finds his faith, but it is not on the road any expected. While I was not thrilled with the final act, it takes the film in a completely different, unexpected direction. Both Ethan Hawke and Paul Schrader should be applauded for their work and vision in First Reformed.