First Reformed

Full review:

First Reformed is a thoughtful, scathing critique of the modern American church. As someone who has spent a significant portion of his life inside a church, this film deeply resonated with me. The church’s blatant hypocrisy and inability to recognize its glaring flaws are major themes of this bold analysis of religious culture.

Writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller (played magnificently by Ethan Hawke), a retired Army chaplain who has recently lost his son after convincing him to enlist. His wife leaves shortly thereafter, and Toller quits the army. Running from his guilt, he becomes the pastor of the historic First Reformed Church, which functions as more of a museum than a place of worship. Toller spends more time as a tour guide than a spiritual guide. First Reformed is owned by a nearby megachurch called Abundant Life, which uses the small, declining church as nothing more than a way to generate extra cash by selling souvenirs to passing tourists.

One Sunday, a woman approaches Toller and asks him to speak with her husband, a troubled environmental activist consumed with despair over the earth’s inevitable doom. Toller is sympathetic to the man’s concerns but feels powerless to enact change. When he speaks to the pastor at Abundant Life (played by Cedric the Entertainer), his assumptions are confirmed. Despite Toller’s assertions about climate science and the Biblical mandate to care for the earth, the pastor refuses to listen. Not only will the church fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of climate change, it will also continue to support powerful polluters in exchange for donations.

Schrader exposes the flaws of most Protestant churches though his depiction of Abundant Life. One of these flaws is the inability to understand and empathize with differing viewpoints. There are hundreds, if not thousands of Protestant denominations in America today. If a churchgoer disagrees with the official church stance on even one point of doctrine, leadership typically responds by explaining that he is not allowed to state his rogue opinion to other members. If he doesn’t like that restriction, he is free to leave. This attitude toward minor dogmatic issues has created an incredibly fragmented religion. Each individual church is filled with like-minded members who never encounter people with different perspectives.

This huge problem at Abundant Life creates a hostile environment for Toller and his liberal concerns. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan uses a 4:3 aspect ratio and stationary camera shots to create the feeling that the viewer is peeking through a window into Toller’s psyche. As he struggles to find anyone at the church with whom he can relate, he falls deeper into the depression and loneliness already present from his son’s tragic death.

A church is a lonely place for someone looking to enact change. Anyone who may have shared Toller’s beliefs has either moved to a different church or, more likely, left the church altogether. Toller feels like the only sane person in the congregation – the only one who can see the cliff over which the blind pastors are leading their sheep.

There is an eery lack of music throughout most of the film, building a suspenseful dread as Toller sinks deeper into his own mind. His unfurnished house seems to be the physical manifestation of Toller’s mental state. His only furniture in the decently sized home consists of a twin bed, a table and a chair or two. Whiskey appears to be the only thing stocked in the kitchen, and he partakes at every opportunity. He is completely unprepared to host any guests, as if he is actively discouraging others from interacting with him. The only activity he engages in while at home is writing down his thoughts in his journal. Unable or unwilling to find anyone with whom to discuss his concerns, he is forced to mull over them obsessively.

As the film progresses, Toller becomes less and less hopeful that the church is capable of change. He is forced to confront his faith and determine how his disagreement and frustration with the church will affect the path of his life.

Schrader’s portrayal of the church is bleak and fatalistic, but it is largely accurate. His impeccable filmmaking sheds light on systemic problems that must be addressed. I hope the film inspires some within the church to take action and fight to realign the institution with Jesus’ teachings. However, it is much more likely that the film’s message falls on the same deaf ears that are incapable of hearing Toller’s cries for help.

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