First Reformed is an intellectual journey inward through the mind and sparse congregation of the Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) of the First Reformed Church. It’s an austere world we visit in this film.
Toller’s tiny, historic church is visited one day by Mary (Amanda Seyfried). She tells Toller she’s pregnant. I found the symbolism of the pregnant woman named Mary hopelessly blatant. Mary’s husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) wants her to have an abortion. Toller agrees to go talk with Michael.
Concurrent with Toller’s interactions with Michael and Mary, his church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Rev. Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer AKA Cedric Antonio Kyles), the head of the ruling mega church, is overseeing the celebration.
Rev. Jeffers brings in local businessman and renowned polluter Balq (Michael Gaston) to bankroll the celebration.
Toller learns from Michael about the crisis of climate change. Michael isn’t sure he wants a child of his to come into a world that is close to imploding on itself. There’s talk of despair and hope, of what God wants us to do for the earth. Michael asks, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” Morality is the focus in First Reformed.
Toller is gravely ill. He hides it. He’s an alcoholic. He hides it. He writes in a diary which we hear in voice over. Many moments of the film are Toller at a desk writing and drinking while we hear his thoughts in voice over.
Michael does something shocking that makes Toller question everything he’s accepted before. It brings Toller closer to Mary.
Toller researches climate change. Why isn’t the church doing something about the most pressing issue of our age? It puts him in conflict with Rev. Jeffers and the powerful-with-dirty-money Balq.
In the midst of his slow-motion internal storytelling, writer and director Paul Schrader inserts a scene where Mary lies atop Toller and they levitate – at first ecstatically but later with despair. It’s out of sync with the rest of the film, which has been bland and colorless and full of navel-gazing.
The levitation scene makes some sense later when you try to decipher the final scene. It changes the direction of Toller’s thinking drastically.
Schrader ends First Reformed with another enigmatic scene between Toller and Mary. I’m not sure what to make of it. Is it saying Toller is an ordinary man, not a spiritual martyr as he imagined he would become? Is it saying there is hope after all? Is he saying there is no hope, that individual humans are too selfish to save the environment? Did Mary create a miracle in Toller’s life? Or did Mary stop him from doing something extraordinary?
We spend time exploring the great moral and ethical questions of a spiritual life as a citizen of earth. But, in the end, the message is left to us to interpret.
Ethan Hawke delivers an amazing performance. All the actors were believable and real. It was refreshing seeing Amanda Seyfried in a role that wasn’t hypersexualized.
The film is available on Amazon Video, YouTube, and other streaming services.
Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world? Somebody has to do something.