Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is keeping a journal, writing an entry a day in quiet, self-imposed solitude. He is the keeper of a small historical chapel named First Reformed outside of Albany, N.Y., which is close to celebrating its 250th reconsecration. Although Toller holds services on Sundays the bulk of his work is providing tourist tours — pointing out the small shelf of gift shop items next to the shelf of heirlooms from when the church was frequented. Youth group kids from Abundant Life, the megachurch down the road, call First Reformed “the souvenir shop.” Toller’s son was killed in the Iraq war, which resulted in the end of his marriage and led him to quiet despair, solitude and his position at First Reformed. Toller writes because he can no longer pray.
Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Toller, concerned with the mental state of her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is depressed and hopeless. The two are expecting their first child — she’s 20 weeks along already — and he can’t get over his fears about climate change and what the world will look like for his children. “You knew,” he thinks they’ll say, “You knew and yet you still brought me into this world.”
Toller develops a relationship with Michael, consoling him about hope, despair and the unknowability of God’s plan. In his journal, Toller describes his conversations with Michael as invigorating and feels a kinship with Michael’s despair. Michael’s doubts about the way human beings have altered the world plants a seed in Toller that blossoms as they approach the reconsecration ceremony, funded by Edward Balq, the billionaire behind a major chemical company responsible for vast pollution.
“Will God forgive us?” Toller starts to ask, about what we’ve done to his creation.
Writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ, etc.) conveys his magnum opus with First Reformed. Toller is a man of extremes. He was born a chaplain, in a long line of chaplains, and persuaded his only son to go to war as a chaplain … only for him to die six months later. Toller haunts First Reformed like the spirit of an old-school reverend, not preaching fire and brimstone or prosperity gospel but rather self-flagellating over his guilt, his darkness, his despair over a disconnection from God. In his journals, Toller quotes theologians who, as his benefactor and megachurch pastor Cedric (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer) angrily tells him, sat alone in monasteries instead of living in “the real world.”
“The real world,” in this case, defined by the wants and needs of a congregation. The need to finance those services. The presence of multibillion-dollar companies with questionable business practices but pockets overflowing for an organization that would grant them salvation. So what if the main speaker and biggest name on the marquee at the reconsecration of First Reformed is Balq and not God?
Toller is searching for something else in his faith that can’t be met by “the real world,” and meeting Michael puts him into overdrive. He starts to question humanity’s treatment of the planet. He starts to question his role in preventing it. All he can see around him are people in power taking advantage of God’s name. A tenet of Calvinist theory (and most Reformed Protestant gospel) is that nobody knows God’s will, and yet in Balq uses this as a deflection whenever he’s asked to confront his culpability in destroying local bays. The idea is to rob the power of those in righteous capacities who would claim to know God’s will. Here, it’s used as a shield to those who don’t use their influence to protect God’s creation.
It’s hard not to empathize with Toller, even as his extreme beliefs put him on a potentially violent path. Thankfully the movie only flirts with exploitation, much more content to put its beleaguered frontman through the gauntlet of faith to see where he comes out on the other side. It’s a compelling character study, acted so beautifully by Hawke, perhaps in a role that should define his later career.
Schrader isn’t interested in lampooning modern religion or making a didactic point, and he does slip into esoteric visual imagery at multiple points. There are certainly sequences that made audience members groan, and the ending in particular made one middle-aged woman exclaim “Oh, brother.” Sure. But few movies capture the pain of faith and self-doubt and the struggle between hope, despair and God that rests within someone who doesn’t fit alongside those finding solace in “the real world,” or who see faith as something more (or want to).
It’s true that, throughout history, that the relationship between church, wealth, and power are inextricable. Toller wants to find relief from his pain, his depression, his failing body and broken heart, but he can’t find that relief through blind belief and belonging. He’s too self-righteous, but like many depressed souls sees even greater self-righteousness in those who don’t question themselves. For a person so extreme, so inactive, so broken, simply asking God for help isn’t enough. He writes because he can no longer pray.