Theatrical release poster
by Peter J. O’Connell
First Reformed. Runtime: 113 mins. Released: May 2018. MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing, violent images.
As the camera moves slowly up from its steps to its steeple, First Reformed church seems a commanding structure—pristine white; flat surfaces with sharp corners; elegantly simple design. It looks like a perfect manifestation of the predestinarian, puritanical Calvinists who formed the congregation in a small New York town 250 years ago. With this image begins writer/director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.
But fine as the house of worship appears, the state of its worshippers is not so fine. The congregation has shrunk drastically after decades of dominance in the community. In fact, First Reformed is now, in effect, a satellite of the Abundant Life Church, a megachurch located nearby in a blandly modernist complex and mainly focused on social services and feel-good theology. Abundant Life treats First Reformed mostly as a kind of tourist attraction, complete with gift shop, for school groups, etc. First Reformed’s pastor, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), shows the tourists such sights as the cellar that the church used as a station on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves.
Toller is a troubled man—grief-stricken, guilt-ridden, doubt-plagued. As a military chaplain, he urged his son to enlist—and the youth was killed in combat. That tragedy led to the breakup of Toller’s marriage. In the wake of the breakup, Toller began to drink. A possible relationship with an Abundant Life music director (Victoria Hitt) hasn’t worked out. Yet Toller struggles to fulfill his pastoral role despite his personal demons., and the decline of First Reformed. The situation is deeply ironic for Abundant Life is actually planning a big celebration for the impending 250thanniversary of the founding of First Reformed. An industrial corporation that now dominates the local economy has agreed to be a benefactor of that celebration—and of Abundant Life.
One day Toller, the troubled pastor, is approached by a pregnant woman named Mary (hmmm . . . played by Amanda Seyfried), who urges Toller to counsel her troubled husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is so depressed by the state of the global environment that he thinks the human race itself should perish for what it has done. Michael is even urging Mary to have an abortion. Toller entreats Michael to get his thinking back into balance: “Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself, hope and despair.”
But as their conversations go on, Toller begins to be influenced by Michael more than Michael is influenced by him. Toller becomes particularly concerned by the harm that the benefactor corporation of Abundant Life is doing to the local environment. Sharing his concern with Abundant Life’s Pastor Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles), Toller is advised that he is spending too much time “in the Garden.” Jeffers is referring to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ sweated blood before the Crucifixion, but we may see other possibilities in the phrase as well (Garden of Eden, anyone?).
The Edenic metaphor takes powerful visual form in a kind of “magical realist” episode triggered by an intimate (nonsexual) contact between Toller and Mary. Toller experiences beautiful visions of an unspoiled world, but then the Gethsemane metaphor takes over, and apocalyptic scenes of an overpopulated, overpolluted, overheated world reminiscent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting horrify Toller.
Toller is also horrified when Mary shows him an explosive suicide bomber vest that Michael has obtained. Toller takes possession of the vest and begins to research radical Islamist Web sites. From this point on, events take on an increasingly intense, suspenseful, violent quality as the 250th“reconsecration” of First Reformed looms, with the head of the polluting corporation (Michael Gaston) to be prominent in the events and the governor and other politicians invited.
Paul Schrader wrote and/or directed some of the classic films of the 1970s and 1980s: Taxi Driver, Blue Collar,Hardcore, Raging Bull, American Gigolo,Mishima. The mix of high art and sensationalism that characterizes these films is also fully evident in First Reformed, to a wrenching degree.
It is hard to imagine a better performance of the ravaged, sensitive Toller than that given by Ethan Hawke. Amanda Seyfried as Mary is tender and moving. Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles, an African-American performer usually associated with comedy, is perfectly nuanced as Pastor Jeffers. And the film’s cinematography is as austere as the architecture—and theology—of the First Reformed church.
First Reformedis in some ways a miraculous movie. Shot in the astonishingly short time, for a feature film, of 15 days, it has a fine cast enact a script that brings together, powerfully if not perfectly, vitally important themes of different types. Blessings on Paul Schrader, raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, who did not see his first film until he was 17. Schrader may have left the church at an early age, but, we might say, the church never left him!