Director: Paul Schrader
Film Website: https://a24films.com/films/first-reformed
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric Kyles
Genre: American Drama
Film Rating: 15
Review Rating: 4.5/5
*Please note this review contains spoilers!*
‘First Reformed’ is an American drama that was released last year which was inspired by the novel ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’, by French writer Georges Bernanos in 1951. The story is based on a Protestant minister, Pastor Ernst Toller, who is losing his faith in God and morality and is consumed with unknown answers and, knowing he is seriously ill, decides to write down his thoughts and fears in a journal, which he plans on destroying after a year.
Pastor Ernst Toller [Ethan Hawke] was a former military chaplain and becomes an alcoholic due to his guilt over the death of his son Joseph, who was killed in the Iraq War after he encouraged him to enlist. He now lives in a small quiet town and is the leader of a tiny historical church which hardly anyone attends anymore.
Despite his inner turmoil, he meets a young pregnant parishioner girl named Mary, who turns to him as she seeks counselling and guidance for her radical-environmentalist husband, Michael, who doesn’t want to have their child and wants her to have an abortion, given the state of the planet and his despair of the future.
“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. We can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously: hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”
Toller tries to give comfort, but instead, Michael’s view has an impact on him. Mary then finds a suicide vest belonging to Michael hidden in their garage. Toller agrees to take it away, but he keeps it. Toller then agrees to meet Michael in a local overgrown park to help with his counselling but instead finds him dead with his head blown off with a rifle. At Michael’s services, he wishes his ashes to be scattered over the local toxic-waste dump.
I went over everything that was said, what should have been said, what could have been said differently, what could have been said better. “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Thomas Merton wrote this. “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.”
It’s not long until plans are underway to celebrate the anniversary of ‘First Reformed’ with a service at Toller’s church, which will be attended by the town’s mayor, governor, and a notable industrialist, Edward Balq, who is a key financial backer of ‘Abundant Life’. This has a profound effect on Toller. He then argues with Balq over climate change and starts to question ‘Will God forgive us for the damage we have done to his creation?
The man who says nothing always seems more intelligent. Why couldn’t I just keep silent?
As Toller’s pains get physically worse, he reluctantly goes to see a doctor, who suspects cancer. Soon after, Mary visits Toller, and on her request plays her ex-husband Michael’s role in a ‘nonsexual rite of physical intimacy’. This is a very beautiful scene in the film. It depicts perfectly what it is like when you have a perfect connection with someone, as you feel as one, as you float into another realm. It shows them floating up in the air, into space and flying across clouds and mountains until the scene changes and the land is filled with plastics and rubbish which are scattered all over the land.
Despite their closeness, Toller tells Mary not to attend the upcoming anniversary service, and as he’s preparing for the ceremony, he puts on Michael’s explosive vest. He then looks out of the window watching people arrive, and to his dismay he sees Mary walking up the stairs. This completely does his head in and he is filled with anger and rage.
He then removes the vest and instead wraps himself in barbed wire before putting on his alb.
With everyone waiting in the church, Cedric Kyles goes to see where Toller is but is unable to gain entry as the doors are locked.
You don’t see any of the service as the last scene is Toller pouring himself a glass full of toxic drain cleaner, and he is about to drink it to end his life when Mary walks in. The two run towards each other and embrace, which shows one of the longest kissing scenes, and then the film abruptly ends.
You are then left with more questions than answers….what really happened?
Does Reverend Toller live or die? Was he saved by Mary?
First of all, there are all the name connections, like Mary; obviously meaning the Virgin Mary, as well as her husband Michael, ‘The Archangel Michael’, and Toller’s son being called ‘Joseph’. Also, why was Mary able to gain entry when Cedric Kyles’ character wasn’t?
In interviews, Schrader has refused to give fans a concrete explanation for the film’s ending and says any interpretation is fine with him. So I suppose it’s up to you to decide. There are also strong references to Schrader’s other film ‘Taxi Driver’.
I personally found this film to be one of the most well-acted, well-written and thought-provoking films I have seen. I have always thought Ethan Hawke as such an underrated actor. I especially liked the focus on climate change and the lack of hope with the realisation of ‘What have we done?’ as we see wildlife struggling and natural habitats destroyed due to our greed and large corporations caring more about £ than morals.
At the Independent Spirit Awards, the film received nominations for Best Film, Best Male Lead (Ethan Hawke), Best Director and Best Screenplay, while Schrader’s screenplay was also nominated for an Academy Award, the first of his career. I am not surprised this film was chosen by both the National Board of Review and American Film Institute as one of the Top 10 Films of 2018.
This really is a movie that gets you thinking, a must watch…
Review by Jo Blackened
This is what might have finished him off