First Reformed

first_reformed (1)STARS2Filmmaker Paul Schrader has long been fascinated with characters hell-bent on a self-destructive path. Time and again whether it be the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or his own directorial works like American Gigolo, Hardcore, or Affliction, difficult themes infect his work. In a nutshell, First Reformed is the chronicle of a religious man’s crisis of faith. Yet the narrative covers a lot more than that as Schrader endeavors to explore religion, spirituality and one’s existence beyond the physical body. Oh yes, there’s a flying sequence over mountains and stars and a whole lot more in one of the few cinematographic moments contained within that does not rely on a static shot. A cinephile, Paul Schrader has long cited the work of the great French director Robert Bresson. Schrader is deeply influenced by his minimalist style, particularly Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest which is clearly a major influence on this production.

The account introduces Ethan Hawke as a Protestant minister of a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He keeps a journal which allows him to mournfully narrate the story with his entries heard in voiceover. The Reverend Ernst Toller is not a happy man. A divorcé, he still contends with the death of his only son Joseph whom he encouraged to go off and fight in the Iraq War.  Currently, Toller also struggles to even get a scant few to attend his services. The pews are mainly empty. This historical edifice is now more of a tourist attraction as the chapel was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. In his spare time, he gives visitors tours of the grounds that conclude in the gift shop where they can purchase a souvenir hat.  When he’s alone, he drinks.  It’s these little details that serve to underscore his growing despair. This is all in stark contrast to the nearby parent megachurch, Abundant Life, from which his parish receives financial support. Its evangelical ministry is 5,000 strong and headed up by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer – billed as Cedric Kyles here). He’s confident, upbeat, and life-affirming.   The man inspires hope. Toller arouses hopelessness. I mean let’s be honest, whose church would you rather attend?

The story is set in motion when Toller is visited by a lay person named Mary, a woman pregnant with child.  Her husband is named Michael (not Joseph — that was Toller’s son, remember?) Oh but do take note of these names. Their biblical allusions are not an accident. Side note: Esther (Victoria Hill) is the choir director with whom he has a past relationship. Anyway back to Mary. She is seeking help regarding her spouse who is consumed by radical environmentalist beliefs. Michael is apparently prone to violent acts that promote his cause. His anguish over the ecological state of the Earth is so strong he doesn’t even wish to bring his child into this world. We’re talking abortion mixed with eco-terrorism – two topics guaranteed to derail even the most pleasant dinner party. Toller’s rather dispassionate response is that the trauma of taking a life is much worse than having to endure the trauma of the world.

Over time, Michael’s climate-change opinions have a negative influence on Toller’s religious faith. That’s not to say the screenplay presents Michael’s secular misery as something to admire. Plainly he is mentally ill with deeply rooted emotional problems. His wife, on the other hand, is the optimism at the center of this trio. She may share her husband’s respect for the planet, but not his dire methods. As the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, she resists her husband’s immoral discontent. Toller, on the other hand, does not. He is the preacher who has chosen a devotion to God as his raison d’être.  Toller’s existential crisis is his complete undoing.  Yet the reason for Michael’s profound effect on the pastor never seems clearly delineated. Toller becomes obsessed with the corporations responsible for the most damage to the Earth. However, it’s more than mere environmental matters at the root of his ennui.  The Abundant Life Church, with its acceptance of donations from one of those same powerful polluting corporations, is his downfall as well.  The system is broken. Yet he makes no attempt to fix it in any meaningful or constructive way.

First Reformed is the depiction of a man unhinged. As the 250th anniversary of the church’s consecration approaches, he grows more and more despondent.  It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his betrayal and arrest.  Jesus’ agony there was so deep he sweat blood.  In a genial display of concern, Jeffers lightly admonishes Toller. “You’re always in the Garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”  Thank you.  Can I get an amen up in here?  First Reformed is a bleak film that subdues the viewer with fixed shots and minimalist style. The grim portrait is unyielding for most of the narrative and then at the eleventh hour offers something to contemplate with its parting image.  The abrupt “resolution” is a bit of a head-scratcher but perhaps a rare moment of hope in a drama about despair.


12 Responses to “First Reformed”

  1. Eric Wilkinson Says:

    The audience had an extreme negative reaction to this when I saw it. At least to how it ended… I think it’s the best film I’ve seen this year. No question. But that’s me. I see where you’re coming from I think but I found it profoundly moving and thought-provoking and was riveted throughout even as I didn’t know where it was going…and once I did…


    • I’m curious what specifically moved you? You can get into spoiler territory if you must. (Although there’s not much to spoil aside from the last 5 minutes of the film)


      • Eric Wilkinson Says:

        While I don’t consider myself a religious or even particularly good person I do try overall and I could see that his struggle between being a good person and a good priest was, as you noted, undercut at every turn by despair and hopelessness. I see step by step how he comes to the decision he comes to (it makes more sense, in a way, than the progression in Schrader’s thematically-similar if more profane TAXI DRIVER screenplay) and how, as they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways (with that “Eleventh Hour” divine intervention, if you will, stopping him from making a huge mistake)… I think I even see how that could be frustrating for an audience but I also see how the ending is a bold artistic statement – a summation of the choice between embracing love or wallowing in hate and anger and acting out. Make sense?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. Thanks for indulging me. You explained your admiration for the film. I appreciate your take.


    • I like your take. Some of this movie, in my opinion, is forced and cringey in a few spots. But, I too found it thought provoking for the most part. The point that resonated with me most was the theme of responsibility that we have to the environment, ourselves, and others. There’s a vicious cycle that emerges starting with Michael, who’s clearly not right (and Michael knows this also about himself) but when pressed, Toller doesn’t do anything or attempt to get him help. We all know his fate.

      Then, Toller’s clearly not right and he’s self-aware of this too, the diary writing is proof of this. Yet, he refuses to get help, and those around him tell him he needs help but only tell him, never make the effort to do so. Ced’s character even says “We’ll get you straight after the consecration.” I found that point very moving.


      • This is a great discussion!

        Naturally, love for the environment is a good thing. that’s easy to understand. However, Toller’s subsequent actions to “help” the environment were clearly insane. Michael had an effect on him that was rather odd, especially since Toller had chosen a spiritual life.

        Toller attempted to help Michael when he visited him. Although I noted in my review that Toller’s responses were so dispassionate that he probably didn’t inspire hope.

        True Pastor Jeffers didn’t give Toller the help he needed either. Perhaps if he had realized that Toller belonged in a sanitarium at that point, his responses would’ve been different.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like an interesting movie. Bleak, yet beautiful and thought provoking. I ought to check it out!!!


  3. I really like grim and bleak films, but after reading your review I do not know what to think. I expected great things from this one.


  4. I had a hard time with this film. I saw the positive reviews for this, and I just don’t get it. A minister shouldn’t become so weak so quickly. I didn’t believe it. Too strange for me. 2 stars


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