I remember several months ago, my boyfriend and I were sitting watching movie trailers on Reddit because we are so incredibly cool. The original teaser trailer for FIRST REFORMED was on the list. The trailer was not extremely revealing as to the overall plot of the film but even still, I knew I had to see it.
First of all, it was being distributed by A24. I haven’t seen every movie they’ve released, but at this point in time, I am quite certain they are incapable of picking bad films for their roster.
Secondly, Ethan Hawke. Let me tell you about my love for the dude. I have loved every performance, I read his novel The Hottest State and watched the film. Now I realize he’s written other books which I’m about to go buy and read. I’ve watched most of the films he’s directed. This love affair most likely had its first stirrings upon watching Dead Poet’s Society as a tiny child and then came into full bloom when seeing Reality Bites as a pre-teen. I love Ethan Hawke and hope that one day I can meet him without acting like a total creep.
Thirdly, Paul Schrader. Paul MOTHERFUCKING Schrader. When I was 16 or 17, I read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. If you haven’t read it, do it NOW, it’s an amazing oral history of the American film movement of the 60s/70s. The book talks a lot about Paul Schrader, especially his relationship with Martin Scorsese, seeing as he wrote the scripts for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead. He’s illustrated as a bit of a badass on the fringes of acceptable society, kind of like Abel Ferrara or John Milius. Paul Schrader has directed a slew of films, most notably (to me) Cat People, American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Auto Focus, and most infamously in recent years, The Canyons. Typically if Paul Schrader directs something, it’s going to be something special, or at the very least, interesting. If he writes and directs it, I have to see it!
So I have been trying to get around to seeing FIRST REFORMED since its initial theatrical release. I knew I would at least like it due to the factors that I mentioned above. I wasn’t sure what the exact angle of the film would be, but I hoped, as someone who grew up in the South and in attendance of countless Southern Baptist Church services, that it would be a scathing critique of organized Christianity. I’m glad to report that in many ways, it is. It is also so much more than that.
FIRST REFORMED is set in the small town of Snowbridge, New York. Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, the pastor of The First Reformed Church, a Protestant Church that was used as a stop on The Underground Railroad. Due to its historical landmark status, it is preserved by Abundant Life Church, a perfect amalgam of the American “MegaChurch”. At the onset of the film, First Reformed is approaching its 250th anniversary, which will be accompanied by a huge celebration sponsored by Abundant Life lead pastor Joel Jeffors (Cedric The Entertainer!!) and one of their financial backers, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston; Man in the High Castle, The Leftovers). Before I really dig into this part of the story, I need to backtrack a little bit.
Snowbridge First Reformed is a sparsely attended church that is often jokingly referred to as “The Gift Shop” by Abundant Life staffers, due to its regular visits by tourists but lack of regular parishioners. Amongst the few people who do attend the services, there are Esther (Victoria Hill; Soul, Boys In Trees), an Abundant Life choir director with whom Ernst maaaaay have had a little fling (and by may, I mean he definitely did), Mary (Amanda Seyfried; Mean Girls, Jennifer’s Body), her husband Michael (Philip Etinger; Brawl in Cell Block 99, Dominion) and John Elder (Bill Hoag; Orange is the New Black, House of Cards) who plays the organ…when it works.
At the beginning of the film, after attending a service, Mary asks Reverend Toller if he could come by their house the next day to counsel her husband Michael. Reverend Toller obliges without necessarily knowing what he’s getting into, probably so he could finally feel useful again. Upon arriving to Michael and Mary’s home, he learns that Michael doesn’t want Mary, who is five months pregnant, to give birth to their child. The reasoning behind this being that climate change is reaching a point where it’s almost impossible to turn back it’s disastrous effects.
During this conversation we also find out that Reverend Toller is a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to join the army because that’s what he, his father, and his grandfather before him had done. His son was killed in Iraq and his marriage ended. Revered Jeffors extended the position of pastor at First Reformed as an olive branch.
From the moment of meeting Michael and Mary, Reverend Toller’s mental and physical health continue to deteriorate and all of the things he once believed are thrown out the window. His crisis of faith is all-encompassing and nearly kills him.
The film is beautifully shot by Alexander Dynan who has previously worked with Schrader on Dog Eat Dog. The sparse yet beautiful visuals encapsulate the hope that can be found just outside of despair. The eerie noise music of Lustmord is also captivating and elevates the Reverend’s psychological and physiological battles.
My favorite thing about this film is that while in some ways it is a bit preachy about climate change and big business, it is absolutely a product of its time and has a message that would do most Christians well to receive. Schrader also seems to know that most of them won’t. The film really lets you know that each person must come to their own conclusions about what is right and wrong for them, and how lonely it can be when you figure out everything you fought for most of your life is a sham, and you somehow have to pick up the pieces and start over again.
I read somewhere that FIRST REFORMED is being touted as the Taxi Driver of this generation. I’m not sure if I 100% agree with that statement but it is a scathingly accurate commentary on the state of our country at this moment, just as Taxi Driver was in its day. Rife with religious Easter eggs and incredibly smart criticisms of modern Christianity, this is a film I wish everyone could see. The big question that it asks is: How does God feel about us destroying his creation? Schrader tries his best to answer that in several ways, and as someone raised in the Bible Belt and knows religious hypocrisy better than the back of her hand, I think it was a valiant effort on his part.