Let’s go to church.
First Reformed generated a bit of buzz when it released as a bit of a sleeper hit. I was not aware of the film during production, and it seems to have come out of nowhere. It is too bad this wasn’t given a wider theatrical release because it is an excellent film.
We follow reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) as he grapples with his life via journal writing. He has decided to record his thoughts for one year, and what prompted him to do this is not entirely clear. However, we can tell he is dissatisfied with his position. Working at the First Reformed Church, Toller preaches to mainly empty pews, while the mega-church (owned by the same umbrella as his own) seems to be thriving. Toller gives historic tours, but it seems his church is more of a tourist stop than a place for spiritual healing.
Toller is also combatting illness, and alcoholism. His depression leads him to an existential crisis, which is exacerbated when Mary (Amanda Seyfried) tells Toller her environmentalist husband thinks they should abort their child. Toller tries to convince her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger) that there is still grace in the world, but it isn’t clear who is actually winning the argument.
Ideas of faith, despair, hope, and existential duty mesh in this film in interesting ways. Toller doesn’t see Christianity as something that should be easy, but rather as something to help spur people into rightful action. His desires for change and action lead him astray from the corporate side of these large churches.
The film deals with faith, finance, and what it means to be a religious organization quite well. While it showcases problems within the structure, this is not a hit piece on religion, which I think makes it a stronger film. We end up with a deeply contemplative story about what is means to be a religious individual in a world that seems too interconnected with itself and disconnected from what matters.
As Toller grapples with these ideas, what he should be becomes a new mission for him. Here is where the crux of the film comes into play. What type of action (and which side of the argumentative stance) he decides to do will have potentially catastrophic results.
Gorgeous and bleak cinematography set the tone and mood for this film. Overall, this is an interesting film worth seeing. Seeing the debate and change within Toller showcases Hawke’s skills, and I do hope we see him doing more work. If you’re in the mood for a thinker, this one is worth a watch.