The Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is minister for a protestant church in a small town in upstate New York. The congregation is about to mark its 250th anniversary, but Toller can’t seem to muster up any enthusiasm for the celebration, or for anything else. A former military chaplain, Toller’s wife left him after their son – at Toller’s urging – enlisted and was killed in Iraq. Toller was thrown a lifeline by Joel Jeffers (a terrific Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer), who heads up Abundant Life, a megachurch down the road that casts a large shadow over Toller’s church and wields great influence in the community. Jeffers, rather than Toller, is planning the church’s celebration, which is being paid for by Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the sleazy head of a local oil company.
Toller’s flock has dwindled to a handful of loyal residents. It’s telling that more people show up to tour the church and buy souvenirs than attend services. He goes through the motions of delivering a sermon and administering communion. His nights are spent alone, sitting at a desk in a sparsely furnished room, drinking too much and keeping a journal, writing each entry by hand while promising that, after a year, he will burn the pages. His pain is palpable, exhaustion and loneliness seem to hang in the air around him. He’s also physically ill, pissing blood and fearful that he has cancer. He ended his relationship with Abundant Life’s choral director Esther (Victoria Hill), and he cannot tolerate her constant attention.
Toller appears to be the last person anyone would seek out for help, but Mary (Amanda Seyfried) has more faith in Toller than he has in himself. Her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), is an environmental activist who has become so pessimistic about the state of the planet, that he cannot accept bringing a child into the world. Mary, who is pregnant, worries that he wants her to have an abortion. Can Toller talk to him?
While Michael’s computer screen fills up with maps of what the continents will look like in 10, 20, 30 years (all that red represents land under water), Toller does his best to explain that the world has been in dire circumstances before. There’s still time, he tells Michael, for things to turn around. Days later, Toller returns to the home after a frantic call from Mary. In the garage, she has found a suicide vest. Toller tells her not to call the police and says he will dispose of the vest.
Michael, however, is on a suicide mission and even the missing vest won’t stop him. Toller is devastated that he wasn’t able to save this young man, just like he wasn’t able to save his son. But he can follow Michael’s wishes for his funeral, which calls for sprinkling his ashes in one of the most polluted areas of town. While Toller was only following the wishes of the deceased, Balq views it as an insult to him and his company, which was responsible for the polluted waterway and insists the cleanup was successful. Jeffers, dependent on Balq’s financial support, does nothing to defend Toller, even suggesting that he enter a treatment facility to deal with his drinking.
Director Paul Schrader has long admired Robert Bresson, whose 1951 film, The Diary of a Country Priest, certainly inspired First Reformed. Priests, ministers, are set before us as professionals whose aim is to help others deal with worldly problems through religion and, hopefully, find God in the hereafter. Yet men of the cloth are, after all, human, with their own flaws and misfortunes. Often, they don’t have all the answers or, indeed, any more insight than the average person on how to solve a problem.
First Reformed is not a feel good film, but it is an important one, raising issues that continue to be debated in conversations and online. Hawke’s performance is not to be missed. His is a brave and fearless portrayal of a man who is unraveling but still in search of salvation.
Top photo: Ethan Hawke
Photos courtesy of A24