Sitting in a grey room on a bleak winter day, the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) listens as a despairing member of his flock asks, “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” This ominous question sets the general mood for Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and lingers over the reverend’s head as he personally wrestles with a life caught between hope and despair.
The film unfolds through the eyes of Reverend Toller, the pastor of First Reformed Church, a historic Dutch Reformed congregation approaching its 250th anniversary. Due to its steadily declining membership, First Reformed is now heavily supported and managed by a commercial evangelical megachurch. Throughout the film, we become increasingly aware of the disparity between the two churches, and tensions rise as Toller becomes acquainted with a new young couple in his church, Michael and Mary Mansana (Philip Ettinger and Amanda Seyfried). Mary is with child, and Michael despairs over the fear of bringing a baby into a dying and polluted world. Toller, trying his best to support the new family while struggling with despair himself, begins to feel helplessly subject to the whims of more powerful people—whims perhaps even of a silent and vengeful God—eventually crying out, “Somebody has to do something!”
A first viewing might suggest that First Reformed is simply a movie about environmentalism and the evils of commercial industry. However, below the surface, Toller’s experience presents a rich dialogue of challenging thoughts: prayer, mystic theology (The Cloud of Unknowing is on Toller’s bedside table), and the writings of the American monk Thomas Merton together play out in an excruciating crisis of faith for Toller. First Reformed is a hard film to watch. Nevertheless, I am convinced that behind much of the noise (which is perhaps part of the point) is a film fascinating to watch unfold. First Reformed demands at least a second viewing, and maybe more.
Dietrich Balsbaugh is a junior studying English and Mathematics.