First Reformed, rated R
First Reformed is about a pastor in crisis. This dialogue driven film features an excellent performance by Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller and other strong supporting performances. However, the film deals with some difficult themes, has a disappointing last third, and will certainly not appeal to a broad audience. The film is directed and written by two-time Golden Globe nominee Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). Schrader himself was brought up in the Christian Reformed Church and graduated from Calvin College. The musical score by Brian Williams is effective and ominous.
Four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Training Day, Before Midnight, Before Sunset) portrays Reverend Ernst Toller the pastor of First Reformed Church, a tiny Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York that was built in 1767. The church, which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, now has only a handful of attendees each Sunday. It exists now mainly as a tourist attraction, as Toller shows visitors the trapdoor that led to a shelter for the Underground Railroad and encourages them to make a souvenir purchase. The church is owned by the megachurch Abundant Life Ministries, led by Pastor Joel Jeffers, played well by Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer.
We see Toller writing his confessions, doubts and prayers in his journal each evening, while drinking heavily. He has decided to keep the journal for one year and then destroy it. He enjoys the writings of Thomas Merton.
Toller was once a military chaplain and married with a son. He encouraged his son to serve in the Iraq War, where he was killed. His son’s death was the primary cause for his marriage failing. He is also not well physically, as we see blood when he goes to the bathroom.
About a year ago, he had a relationship with Esther, the Choir Director at Abundant Life, played by Victoria Hill. She still has feelings for Toller, but he doesn’t have any feelings for her anymore.
Toller is contacted by Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables). Mary is a member of his church and pregnant. However, her husband Michael, played by Philip Ettinger, is a radical environmentalist and doesn’t want to bring a child into this world but instead wants Mary to have an abortion. Mary asks the pastor to meet with Michael, which he does, in the best scene in the film, as Toller talks to Michael about hope in the midst of despair.
The environment becomes an important theme in this film. Later, Toller will have an encounter with Edward Balq, played by Michael Gaston, the largest donor at Abundant Life, a petroleum executive and one of the worst polluters in the nation.
The film is rated “R” for some adult language and adult themes, which include abortion, health issues, politics, radical environmentalism, mental illness, hope, despair and alcoholism.
First Reformed is a well-acted, dark and disturbing film that deals with some serious issues. Toller’s journey into the dark night of the soul deepens over the course of the film. Toller paraphrases Merton at one point in the film: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.”
Merton also said, “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.”
Although well-acted (Hawke may have earned his fifth Oscar nomination), written and directed, this will not be a film for everyone. And the last third of the film was certainly disappointing.