Existentialist and environmental crises combine in First Reformed, a film that mixes Ingmar Bergman spiritual isolation with Earth-bound troubles, but not without a very faint touch of hope.
With a lot of voiceover from our main character, First Reformed is of Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), minister at the Dutch Reformed Church which is celebrating its 250th anniversary. First Reformed has a minuscule congregation as is more a tourist attraction as an Underground Railroad stop. It is essentially a branch of the megachurch Abundant Life, headed by Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, here billed as Cedric Kyles).
Toller is keeping a journal for a year, one where he pours out his despair. That despair is nothing compared to that of Michael (Phillip Ettinger). Michael's wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a First Reformed member, asks Toller to counsel her husband who is in the midst of intense emotional turmoil due to climate change. Michael does not want their baby to be born in a world that is about to go into ruin.
Toller has his own issues: his son was killed in the Iraq War (costing him his marriage) and he may have cancer despite being only 46. His spiritual emptiness causes Toller to reject the advances of Abundant Life choir-mistress Esther (Victoria Hill), whom he might have once had a post-divorce tryst.
Eventually, Michael's despair for the planet causes him to commit suicide. Toller slowly adopts Michael's environmental despair, his fears mixed with anger that industrialist Balq (Michael Gaston) is a major Abundant Life/First Reformed benefactor. Toller may have an out, courtesy of the suicide vest Michael had created before his suicide. With the reconsecration ceremony having the Governor and other state and local officials, along with Jeffers and Balq in attendance, will Toller embrace his form of martyrdom?
First Reformed, to be fair, is not how Christians I know actually are, particularly the spiritual leaders. As I heard Toller and Jeffers give messages from the pulpit, there was just such an emptiness, a hollowness that I wondered why even the most passive of believers would think this person was attuned to God. With Toller I could understand, but Jeffers too had no sense of the hope of Christ either from his recorded messages or in conversation with Toller.
Then again, writer/director Paul Schrader may not have been particularly interested in delving into the hopeful aspects of Christianity. His story is that of a man in deep spiritual crisis, one who has fully surrendered to despair and the emptiness of the Silence of God.
Schrader does a fantastic job in keeping things simple and grounded through almost all of First Reformed. There is a silent, almost meditative manner in the film, with a sparse score and only one metaphysical moment that calls out to something otherworldly. Granted, this particular scene between Mary and Toller may either astound the viewer or make said viewer burst out laughing depending on his/her tolerance for visualizing mystical moments. For me, it was a mixture.
Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer too show a greater ability than either have been given credit for. For the former, her Mary is a quiet woman who has her own desperation but unlike the men carries both a metaphorical and literal hope within her. She believes in both Toller and Michael's worlds, knowing the flaws but still keeping on. For the latter, Kyles keeps things simple and direct, working in his way to help Toller through his dark century of the soul.
"You are always in The Garden," he tells Toller, adding that even Christ was not perpetually in despair and agony but in hope and joy. If people think of Kyles as merely a comedian, as just 'Cedric the Entertainer', I advise them to look at First Reformed to see a deeper and stronger actor that he's been credited as.
First Reformed might end on a curious note that is ambiguous, maybe even a bit pat, but it has so much going for it, is told with no real flashes and a very simple and direct manner. Strong performances and story elevate First Reformed (no pun intended).