The credits start to roll and the woman next to me leans over and proclaims, “I guess we’ll all need therapy after watching that!” I hesitate to reply because, despite enjoying the film myself, I find her sentiment the reasonable response.
First Reformed is a difficult movie. Difficult as in there are no moments when the audience can feel at ease. Difficult as in whatever audience it is catering to is a limited one. There’s no action, no distinguishable romance, no quirks, no comedy. Any sense of mainstream filmmaking is absent here. Instead, First Reformed is a heady study on faith, our church leadership, our earth, and America at large.
On its surface, the plot seems laughable. And extreme. But extremism seeps in throughout the story, eventually normalizing itself. Extremism through faith, through climate change, through politics, through violence. This is all countered by Paul Schrader’s masterful and stoic camera work and Ethan Hawke’s (Toller) gentleness. Schrader’s minimalist technique speaks volumes as it juxtaposes the lack of stability and anguish boiling under Reverend Toller’s outer shell. The unconventional academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) limits our frame and lends structure to a rotting world. The lengthy static takes and tendency to film in close-ups refuses us the ability to look away. We confront all of Toller’s anguish head-on. So much anguish. Backlogged from years of misery and failing to live up to the immense expectations of shepherding a church body.
Toller mentions early in the film how despair and hope must always be connected. For without despair there can be no hope and vice versa. How throughout history there have been times when the darkness threatens to tower and overwhelm the world just before God pulls humanity through. He’s says these things to a troubled man from his congregation who doesn’t want his wife to have their baby because of the destitute and inevitable future of our planet. They’re practiced words. Words he doesn’t necessarily believe. He’s not sure what he believes anymore. He spends almost the entire film going through the expected motions of being a pastor. He says the right things, prays the right way, and tries to mentor people not necessarily because he’s called, but because he doesn’t want anyone to know what he really feels. Toller’s anguish keeps building and his ability to put on a facade crumbles. The weight of the world transfers to a cause he doesn’t necessarily know or champion but seems real and righteous to him. Real in that it counters the absurdity and lies he faces within his church and home life. Righteous in that it’s the clearest connection to God he’s had in years.
Toller’s struggles with faith wisely never fold into absurdity. He never doubts there’s a God or the power of faith. His struggles are much more specific to the inner workings and expectations of a church leader. Something I imagine can hit closer to home for most clergymen/women viewers. He struggles to walk up to that pulpit every Sunday knowing people have expectations. Toller’s struggle with prayer is real, and struck me hard. He didn’t think people who prayed all the time truly knew how to pray. That true prayer is rare and takes immense strength. Another pastor tells Toller that, Biblically speaking, Toller’s always in the garden, and never on the mount, or in the temple. I think there’s a nugget of wisdom in there somewhere. But Toller’s defense of the garden stands tall as not every kind of person needs the same kind of pastor. The cookie cutter church with unlimited resources and outreach programs and verses printed 20 feet high on its walls will not make every type of person comfortable. Outliers have their place and purpose. And credit Hawkes ability to draw us into Toller’s angst and for making a character that, on paper has no right being the star of a movie, feel real and worthy of contemplation.
First Reformed’s ending jumps out because it “goes there.” At face value it’s bizarre. I’m not sure the leap it takes is fully earned, but I appreciate the groundwork set in place and the ambition to jump. Can God forgive us? I think First Reformed gives a resounding yes, no matter the method by which it gets there.