First Reformed presents looks at current social issues through the lens of religion and specifically the eyes of a pastor from a failing Reformed church. To its credit, it attempts to give a well-rounded view of these issues.

Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), is recently divorced and has lost his son in the Iraq war. Coming from a long line of male graduates of Virginia Military Institute, Toller had been an armed-services chaplain; he had encouraged his son to enlist to keep the family military tradition going. The resulting tragedy causes Toller deep pain and is followed by a divorce. His wife blames him for their son’s death.

The disillusioned Toller quits the military and becomes pastor of First Reformed Church, somewhere in upstate New York. Here he barely gets by. His congregation has no more than 10 or 12 attendees every Sunday. Much of his time is spent alone in introspection.

Toller has other problems: He bleeds when he urinates, has increasing digestive problems and has turned to alcohol for comfort, which only exacerbates everything. He is diagnosed with cancer. He keeps a journal in hopes that it will bring him some peace and clarity, which it doesn’t seem to do. It’s the only way he feels he can pray.

Confronted by conscience

However, one Sunday after the service, a young, pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to meet with and counsel her husband Michael, a despairing man who sees no hope for a world rapidly being poisoned by pollution and climate disruption. In 33 years, when his child becomes his age, Michael believes, the world will probably be uninhabitable. “Will God forgive us?” he asks himself and Toller. Why bring any more children into this world if this is the situation? Why not abort the child, he says?

Michael is so wrapped up in the radical environmental movement and so pessimistic about the future of the world that he commits suicide, and Toller finds his body. Mary is devastated. Toller, who understands the deep loss of a loved one, spends much time consoling her.

The one bright spot for Toller is a neighboring megachurch run by a rotund African-American pastor (Cedric the Entertainer). This man allows Toller to participate as a mentor in some of the his church’s young peoples’ gatherings and discussions. Toller also has met and had relations with this church’s secretary. She asks him if he thinks what they’ve done was sinful. He replies that he’s seen real sin and that their union was in that category.

Heavy menu of issues

First Reformed looks at many questions: formal, dry, mainline religion versus new, evangelical and more emotional worship, for instance. It delves into the question of environmental activism versus industrialized society’s benefits, such as jobs and consumer items that we all gain from corporations that pollute. It looks at rich versus poor (Toller drives a beat-up car, while the neighboring church is plush); living by principles versus living for economic advantages; the interior spiritual life versus the active outward one; true faith versus false; life versus death; health versus illness; loss versus recovery; sanity versus insanity and the borders around each. Unfortunately, in a two-hour movie, each conflict in this potpourri of issues can only be touched on lightly.

Although the film’s treatment of faith and religion was a little superfluous and stereotypical, it did not denigrate them. It had some depth, referring to ideas such as despair and anguish from Soren Kierkegaard and solitude and the interior life from Thomas Merton. What was most striking, though, was Toller’s use of Bible passages to justify his environmental activism as he begins to find meaning in Michael’s former mission. This was similar to how Nat Turner used Scripture to propel himself and his slave revolt in 1830s Virginia. The novel The Confessions of Nat Turner by the southern white author William Styron and the more recent and realistic movie on Turner, Birth of a Nation, both show Turner’s apocalyptic, visionary and eventually self-destructive faith. Even while Toller was drifting in his faith and unanchored in his personal life, he fully and readily embraced a biblical call toward environmental stewardship.

Toller, though mentally unstable, becomes radicalized, and he sees how his pastor-friend at the large neighboring church is in league financially with the biggest local polluting corporation. He intends to take a violent action during a joint church service that will destroy himself and everyone present.

As he is putting on an explosive vest that Michael had intended to use, we hear the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” But he is saved from his violent intention … and himself … by the arms of his new friend, Mary, who at the last minute comes to him in love.

Surprising depth

First Reformed has a depth that most movies lack.

I went to see First Reformed expecting to see a grade B-type soap opera that would follow the current trend of belittling religion. It was anything but that. It made me think. It had a depth that most movies lack. That aside, I can’t say I liked it. The movie and plot were very dark, portraying suicide and attempted suicide. There was only one humorous incident, when a visitor to Toller’s church cracks an off-color joke that actually has relevance to the point of the movie. Director Paul Schrader has done other dark, psychological movies, including the violent 1970s Taxi Driver with Robert DeNiro and Jody Foster, in which DeNiro similarly isolates and goes into himself, but with devastating consequences and no final redemption. In First Reformed, Toller seems to find a measure of salvation, not through God but through a human agent, Mary. But isn’t that how God often acts? And does not real faith grow because of and through doubts and “dark nights of the soul” as John of the Cross proposed more than 700 years ago?

In a National Public Radio interview, Hawke and Schrader discussed their Christian experiences. Hawke has spent time in the Quaker tradition; Schrader grew up deeply involved in the Christian Reformed Church and spent much time proselytizing. Schrader later journeyed away from religion but said First Reformed was a movie he had had inside of him for a long time. Now after many years, he has returned to church regularly.

Some art works are less likeable than they are insightful. They have us think about how the issues presented relate to our lives. The questions posed by First Reformed are important to the atheist, agnostic and believer alike.

Cite this article
Robert Hubbard, “Less Likeable than Insightful: Schrader’s “First Reformed””, Reformed Journal, 34:2 , 14–15

Robert Hubbard

Robert Hubbard teaches theater and is director of the Northwestern Core at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.