First Reformed: Puzzling, Provocative, Powerful


Last updated 7/17/2018 at 10:11am

First Reformed is a puzzling, provocative, powerful movie. Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, the rector of a very small, very old Dutch Reformed church somewhere in upstate New York. About ten people attend his Sunday services, and Hawke's time is mostly occupied with giving tours of the historical church grounds-including its expansive graveyard and secret compartment where escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad sought refuge-and selling souvenirs (the pastor across town refers to First Reformed as "the souvenir shop"). He's also preparing for the church's 250th anniversary celebration, which will be attended by the mayor, governor, and other notable people, and is being subsidized by Abundant Life Fellowship, the much larger church down the road.

Among the few attendants at his church are Michael and Mary, a young couple pregnant with their first child, played by Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger. She gives Reverend Toller a call because she's worried about her husband; Michael is an environmental activist who has spent time in prison for acting on his militant views.

Michael convinces Rev. Toller that we are scientifically past the point of no return; humanity has destroyed the earth and now we're in the endgame, waiting for the inevitable environmental apocalypse. Michael doesn't want to bring a child into this world. Toller, himself, is no stranger to despair; he's only been a priest for a few years, after the death of his son in Iraq (he'd encouraged him to enlist) and his subsequent divorce. And lately, it doesn't feel like God is hearing his prayers.

The two agree to meet again and continue their conversation, but before that happens, Mary finds a suicide vest in the garage, which she gives to Toller, and Michael commits suicide. Toller is understandably shaken, feeling guilty for his inability to help Michael, and meanwhile powerfully distressed by Michael's worldview.

"Will God forgive us for what we've done to the earth?" Michael had asked him, and he can't stop pondering this question, especially when he realizes that the CEO of a major industrial pollutant, the company Michael was fighting against, is underwriting the church's anniversary celebration. This leads Toller to ponder extreme action, and the film ends with a delirious, overheated, climactic scene.

First Reformed was written and directed by Paul Schrader, and I think that without some knowledge about the kind of movies he makes, and the kind of stories he's drawn to, it's pretty easy to misinterpret this movie. (That's a weakness of the film; whenever you need outside sources to properly understand a film, it's failed in a significant way.)

Schrader is most famous for penning the screenplay for the 1975 classic, Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese. If you're not familiar with that film, it's about a psychotic Vietnam veteran who sees 1970s New York as a cesspool of vice and vermin and eventually takes extreme, violent action to save a young girl from its clutches. Taxi Driver is a delirious and intoxicating descent into madness, as we watch this character (played by Robert De Niro) go from slightly off-kilter to completely unhinged. Nobody in their right mind would mistake Travis for a hero or an admirable character, but he is without a doubt one of the most compelling characters in all of cinema.

I haven't seen them, but I have read that some of Schrader's other films, such as Hardcore and Light Sleeper, follow this same basic formula. I think Taxi Driver serves as a helpful guide for First Reformed, which makes the most sense when viewed as Reverend Toller's descent into madness and extreme, violent action to save the girl and purge the world of its sin and corruption.

Ultimately, Toller is not a hero or an admirable character. And yet, Schrader is being a bit coy with what he's about. Toller is a much more sympathetic character than Travis Bickle; in his attempts to counsel and comfort both suicidal Michael and grieving Mary, as well as in his struggle to maintain his integrity when it's challenged both by the rich church and its immoral financial backers, you identify with him; you want him to somehow emerge victorious. There is no "you talkin' to me?" scene, no moment when we, the audience, become aware that our protagonist has clearly gone over the edge.

Maybe Schrader's trying to demonstrate just how easy and incremental, in the face of traumatic experiences and stress, it is to lose one's grip on reality. This is always how extremism manifests itself. Extremists-terrorists, school shooters, neo-Nazis and their like-always think, as Reverend Toller does, that they're the only sane people in a world gone mad. After all, crazy people rarely are aware that they're crazy.

First Reformed is a challenging and difficult movie, one that is bound to be misunderstood by many. But it's definitely worth seeing, and I highly recommend it.

Movie Info

Rated: R

Runtime: 1 hr 53 min

Director: Paul Schrader

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Will Krishchke and his wife work with InterVarsity in Durango, Colorado, where his wife directs Native Ministries for InterVarsity.


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