SDG Reviews ‘First Reformed’

‘Diary of a Country Priest’ meets ‘Taxi Driver’ in Paul Schrader’s brilliant, disturbing film starring Ethan Hawke as a troubled pastor trying to serve a seemingly distant God in an indifferent world.

Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried in a scene from First Reformed.
Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried in a scene from First Reformed. (photo:

Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. (Baltimore Catechism)

Q. What is thy only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism)

For countless Catholics of a certain age, whether practicing or lapsed, the first question and answer above, instilled in them in CCD classes or parochial school, are as much a part of them as their own names, or more so. For Paul Schrader, as for me, my father and his father before him, the second question and answer have similarly deep roots.

First Reformed is not the first Schrader film to quote these opening lines of the Calvinist Heidelberg Catechism. They also appear in his 1979 film Hardcore, which is largely set in Los Angeles, but is 100% about the Dutch Reformed mecca of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Schrader grew up, and where my father, a Dutch Reformed pastor in my youth, went to college and seminary.

In Hardcore, George C. Scott tried to explain the TULIP acrostic for Calvinism’s “Five Points” to an amiably baffled sex worker. Forty years on, First Reformed finds its protagonist, Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Toller, facing a world in which his theological tradition seems if anything even more incomprehensible. The words of the catechesis of his youth will always be with Toller, as with Schrader, but what comfort or assurance do such words offer today?

Toller’s post — a small Dutch Colonial clapboard church in upper New York state, built by 18th-century Dutch emigrants — is significant historically, but scarcely in any other way.

Toller guides more tourists on weekdays than congregants Sunday morning, explaining the church’s ties to the Underground Railroad, pointing out historic graves in the church cemetery and selling souvenirs in the gift shop.

The church’s upcoming 250th anniversary is a big deal. The celebratory “reconsecration service” (less euphemistically, a kind of last hurrah) will be packed with dignitaries, most of whom have never darkened the church’s door and will never return. A metaphorical shot of Toller laboriously raising a toppled headstone encapsulates his function at First Reformed Church: He is propping up a monument.

It would be easy, if premature, to view this hollow shell of a church as representative of U.S. or Western Christendom. Actually, Christianity is alive and well, after a fashion, at nearby Abundant Life — a megachurch that resembles (as megachurches are wont to do) a mashup of mall and convention center, which might suggest a different sort of a hollow shell.

Well-funded and efficient, Abundant Life is bustling with programs and activity. (A subtle physical exchange between a boy and a girl in a small choir practicing “Are You Washed in the Blood?” is typical of Schrader’s attention to the disconnects below the surface in conservative communities.)

Loose change from the megachurch’s cushioned pews could just about cover First Reformed Church’s operating budget; in fact, it more or less does.

A placard in front of the smaller church gives it away: First Reformed is now “An Abundant Life Historical Church.” Toller’s paychecks are signed by the genial, well-connected Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer), and Jeffers’ wealthy donors cover the church’s expenses.

If that’s not mortifying enough, Toller knows that his job is partly a lifeline thrown to him by Jeffers in the wake of the breakup of his marriage following the death of his son in Iraq. Then a military chaplain, Toller had encouraged his son to volunteer. He now views Iraq as an unjustified war, and U.S. foreign policy may not be the only area in which he has lost faith.

In this humbled condition, Toller strives as best he can for what remains to him: authenticity. He belongs to a particular tradition, but he immerses himself in the likes of Thomas Merton, Soren Kierkegaard and medieval Christian mysticism (his reading material includes a copy of the anonymous 14-century work The Cloud of Unknowing).

At an Abundant Life small group, when a participant struggles with the hard reality of good Christians leading lives that are not so abundant, Toller tries to offer a dose a biblical realism regarding prosperity theology (though he’s shouted down by an indignant Jesus bro who’s tired of feeling bad for the less fortunate, or something).

Toller’s life is a daily existential crisis resonating with the struggles of other fictional men of the cloth, often Catholic, trying to serve a seemingly remote God in a world seemingly indifferent to what they have to offer.

Brendan Gleeson’s formidable rural Irish priest in Calvary is a recent example. Other notable precedents include the protagonists of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Luis Buñuel’s Nazarín, and, most relevantly, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, based on the novel by Georges Bernanos.

Schrader’s seminal study Transcendental Style in Film, published when he was just 26, explored what he argued were spiritually evocative techniques associated with select filmmakers, including Bresson. Schrader’s own interests as a filmmaker, though, have generally run in other directions.

In First Reformed, Schrader makes greater use than ever before of what he calls the “transcendental toolkit” — but it’s still very much a film from the writer of Taxi Driver. If Toller partly evokes Bresson’s wan, saintly curé, in time we see that he’s also part Travis Bickle, which can be as difficult to watch as it sounds.

Actually, Bickle himself was already indebted to Bresson’s curé: Among other things, all three characters keep journals which they update in voiceover. They also share troubling stomach ailments, an incarnational manifestation of a spiritual “sickness unto death.”

But where Bresson leads us through his protagonist’s dark night of the soul to the triumph of grace, as First Reformed unfolds it begins to look as if fallen nature might have the last word, at least for now.

The arena for this showdown of nature and grace is established in a pivotal conversation between Toller and a depressed young environmentalist radical named Michael (Philip Ettinger).

Though wholly secular, Michael respects Toller (in gratifying contrast to his opinion of the team at Abundant Life, which seems “more like a company” to him). Their meeting is arranged by Michael’s concerned wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is pregnant with a child Michael can’t see bringing into so troubled a world.

This dialogue brings together two of the most contentious causes célèbres of the right and the left: abortion and environmental concerns.

In the best line from their exchange, Toller tells Michael that the trauma of taking life outweighs any trauma of suffering it to come into the world. Yet for Michael the threat of looming environmental catastrophe isn’t merely the most important thing, it’s literally the only thing that matters.

Michael's dilemma mirrors one that troubles many dedicated pro-life activists: How does one live day after day in a shadow of so vast a crisis without succumbing either to complacency or numb despair on the one hand or to madness and fanaticism on the other?

The tension between Michael’s despairing environmental apocalypticism and the life of the child in Mary’s womb persists throughout the film, though the pro-life theme remains implicit while the environmental theme in all its urgency and destructive potential becomes the dominant concern.

“You’re always in the Garden,” Jeffers chides Toller (meaning, of course, Gethsemane), in a pastoral conversation not unlike the one Toller’s doctor tries to have with him. “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”

It is humiliation upon humiliation that this glib, shallow man of God may be right about Toller’s increasingly worrisome behavior.

Worse, Toller himself, no less than Jeffers, is in the pocket of a local fat-cat businessman (Michael Gaston) whose oil company has an abysmal environmental record. The word of God is not fettered, St. Paul wrote from prison, but Toller finds there are topics he may not be allowed to discuss. Even a private memorial service held far from any church comes under scrutiny. (I have never seen a scattering of ashes scene so deliberately depressingly and unpoetically shot.)  

In the last act Schrader unexpectedly changes cinematic gears, and even genres, with a surreal sequence borrowing directly from a film with similar eschatological concerns, Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

It’s effective as homage, though what works organically in The Sacrifice doesn’t work the same way here (I think; I might need a second viewing to be sure). Certainly it sets up the mad finale, which is as harrowing as the The Sacrifice’s famous climactic shot, and as ambiguous.

In the end, like The Sacrifice, First Reformed seems to me somehow unresolved. Hope and despair struggle to the end, but the despair is anchored in crushing realities, while the hope is nebulous and chimeral. All the urgency of Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical Laudato Si is here, but too little of its humanism, and very little hint of its redemptive vision.

“Will God forgive us?” is the question to which First Reformed returns again and again. The first time it comes up, Toller’s response is, “Who can know the mind of God?” These are both vital questions, and neither is as simple as it may seem, but the second question is a poor response to the first.

First Reformed depicts a religious culture, like the biosphere, in crisis, perhaps sickness unto death. But it is not a rejection of the former, any more than the latter. For one thing, Michael’s secular despair is hardly more attractive than Toller’s tormented faith.

Nor does the film simply despair of mankind or embrace nihilism. Mary, the film’s most sympathetic character, and for Toller (and probably for Schrader) an icon of goodness, wants her baby. This is a sign of hope, not only that the world should go on, but that human beings should be part of it.

First Reformed can hardly imagine a hopeful future for the world, because it seems human beings can’t or won’t change. The world is broken; human beings are broken; religion is broken.

Yet the film is full of longing for redemption: for healing of wounds, forgiveness of sins, and, in some unguessable way, vindication of faith. Toller hopes that his journal is a kind of prayer. Perhaps Schrader hopes the same for his film.

Caveat Spectator (spoiler warning): Some gory and disturbing images and themes including bloody aftermath of a suicide and a terrorism theme; references to a sexual affair and an intimate, not exactly sexual physical encounter; brief rude humor. Mature viewing.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.