A young eco-activist confronts the massive evidence of humankind’s abuse of the earth, and he spirals downward in a doom loop of despair. The new life growing in his wife’s belly offers no solace. Quite the contrary—he’s not at all sure he wants to bear the responsibility of subjecting a child to the hellscape he is convinced life on earth is destined to become.
He can’t bear the thought, he confides, that his daughter might look accusingly into his eyes 20 years on and ask, “You knew this all along, didn’t you?”
His wife suggests counseling with the minister of a postcard-of-an-old-world church she occasionally frequents, which is long on history (soon to celebrate its 250th anniversary) but dismally short of people in the pews (maybe a half-dozen) on any given Sunday.
The encounter between minister and activist will prove fateful for both of them, in different ways.
A riveting 11-minute dialogue just minutes into Paul Schrader’s masterful 2017 film, “First Reformed,” has the jaded but kindly minister and earnest young man engaged in a kind of thrust-and-parry completely devoid of invective or ill will.
The activist, played with doe-eyed desperation by Philip Ettinger, speaks in a soft voice tinged with anguish, the corners of his mouth sometimes pulling down to expose teeth but no smile, only a head-shaking account of facts forecasting doom.
The megachurch also has a megadonor—a local energy magnate and polluter with the sum total of zero patience for the dire prognostications of eco-activists and sympathetic clergy…
The minister, Ernst Toller, in yet another lost-into-his-role performance by the remarkable Ethan Hawke, is plentifully aware of the young man’s litany, while also harboring doubts and desperations about the core of his own life going forward. He nevertheless summons from some reservoir of hope an eloquent rationale for carrying on, a refutation of the refutation of life.
Neither convinces the other (it’s none too sure the minister has even convinced himself), but respect and concern hover in the air, and they agree to meet again.
It never happens, the plans hijacked when the young man can’t see a way forward and urgently summons Toller via text exchange to “meet” him in a park, where the minister comes upon his counselee’s suicide.
And that is just the beginning of a tightly bound psychospiritual drama that for the concluding 90 minutes or so finds the minister struggling mightily to reconcile his case for hope with the stark terrors expressed by the young man.
Schrader, whose long career includes writing the screenplays for “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” both wrote and directed “First Reformed,” and the mood he sets is of centuries-ago austerity in both substance and style.
The parsonage resembles a prison cell nearly devoid of furniture, carpet or any other warmth suggesting humanity. Bare bulbs cast eerie lights on the otherwise dark, art-free walls, and in the church, the clatter from the shoes of the few forlorn souls venturing inside seem to echo with more conviction than the brief murmurings from Reverend Toller’s pulpit about God’s eternal love.
Toller rarely utters an unnecessary word and never presents more than a half-smile. The permanent furrow in his brow adds to the sense of a serious, even somber man resigned to carrying the burdens not only of his flock, such as it is, but a personal history that gives him no ease.
He bears guilt for a son sent approvingly and then lost to war, and in the aftermath, his marriage gone, too.
Then a lone subsequent life with too much drink and a stomach problem, home most nights immersed in a merciless, self-lashing journal he has committed to keeping for himself, along with reading the meditations of a mid-20th century Trappist monk with an activist’s heart, Thomas Merton.
All this in contrast to the neighboring evangelical megachurch, “Abundant Life” (of course!), filled with people and youth groups, choirs and clatter and unfettered hope.
Abundant Life actually owns First Reformed and maintains it as a kind of shrine to its role as a stop on the Underground Railroad. When the occasional tour or school group happens by, Reverend Toller helpfully points out the trap door leading to the basement where the church harbored fugitive slaves.
The megachurch also has a megadonor—a local energy magnate and polluter with the sum total of zero patience for the dire prognostications and protests of eco-activists and sympathetic clergy such as Toller.
The magnate also demands a speaking role at the 250th anniversary celebration as a means of burnishing his firm’s PR credentials.
Schrader has Cedric Kyles (“Cedric the Entertainer”) play megachurch Pastor Joel Jeffers with an even hand, not as the cartoonish fraud Hollywood often portrays in evangelical pastors. He’s solicitous of Toller’s questing, uncertain spirit, commiserates with him about the challenging world young people often flail around in, but also grows impatient and concerned when Toller’s mood seems to grow darker and more distracted just as the anniversary event nears.
And concerned he well should have been, though he couldn’t possibly have fathomed what storms had been brewing in the good reverend’s psyche and the drastic actions he was considering to commemorate the event.
“Will God forgive us for what we have done to the creation?” Toller asks multiple times, echoing and thereby honoring the young activist’s memory as he prepares to take a final action that he fathoms will carry on his work.
“First Reformed” plays out with a blend of high, intense drama, acute character study, questions about the fate of mainstream religion and the role of religion in political action, and, unexpectedly, two scenes, in the middle and end, of more or less magical realism.
The latter in particular is likely to leave viewers with more questions than answers (though not unpleasantly so). The scenes break into the otherwise gritty conventional narrative, leaving the seeming doom train headed for debacle in favor of sudden soaring imagery that leaves open the fate of all parties to this thoroughly gripping tale.
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Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) from film distribution