First Reformed written and directed by Paul Schrader (Killer Films, Fibonacci Films, Arclight Films, A24, R, 113 min)
Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, and Michael Galston.
The Inability to Kick Either
At some point during the endless cycle of retweets that presages the viral, a tweet happened upon my feed that defines my experience pretty well. In talking about a band, The Hold Steady, this tweet notes that the love of the band comes from a Catholic upbringing driving them to drink and then being unable to kick either his upbringing or his love of spirits.
While I wasn’t raised Catholic, my own religious background provides plenty of reason to drink, and I, too, haven’t really been able to kick either.
Given this summation of my life thus far, First Reformed is the perfect film for me.
A Simple Life
Set in upstate New York, the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) pastors a small reformed church, kept alive more as a tourist attraction than as a flourishing body of Christ. Bankrolled by a local megachurch, Abundant Life, Toller is thankful for the opportunity to have a vocation, especially after losing his son in Iraq and his wife via divorce soon after.
Toller lives a modest life of piety and leads a simple existence at this church, a symbol of a vibrant community long since passed.
But things change when a parishioner, Mary (Amand Seyfried), asks Toller to meet her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). She, the admittedly spiritual one, is pregnant. But, her husband has other ideas. A radical environmentalist—one that has encountered jail time due to his beliefs—he believes Mary has a moral obligation to abort the pregnancy.
Upon first meeting Michael, Toller engages in a theological sparring match and the roots of an existential struggle for the meaning of his faith begin with a simple question: Will God forgive us?
Soon, Toller dives deeply into environmentalism and the corresponding theological principles of stewardship.
Conflict arises when Toller discovers the 250-year re-consecration service is bankrolled by Balq (Michael Gaston), a big industry polluter. Is faithful servanthood a thank you to a generous gift, or to act as a prophet condemning sinners in the hands of an angry God?
Wrestling with Doubt
First Reformed touches all the hot topics around what it means to wrestle existentially with faith and doubt in the 21st century in a classic 4:3 aspect ratio. It tackles the ineffectiveness of a faith-alone dogma, not only in its ability to bring the Kingdom of God to earth through acts of justice but also in its hollowness of relationship.
Throughout, Toller searches for something concrete upon which to rest his theology. The church itself is in constant need of repair and is more of a tourist attraction rather than the body of Christ.
The ministries of the church seem to build community on the surface but they crumble at the simplest of critiques, even from jaded high school students.
And the comfort of the bottle just pushes Toller closer to the grave, even if he commits to the most basic elements of self-care with a mix of pepto in his whiskey.
All We Have Left Is Each Other
First Reformed seems to argue that it’s the relationships we build that pull us away from the cliff of despair and that’s a powerful message when everything around us seems to push us toward that cliff with increasing velocity. The elements of faith might drive us to drink, but in the end, it’s hard to kick either.
Go watch First Reformed please.
Verdict: 5 out of 5