What is the role of faith in a society governed by capitalist pursuits and instantaneous outrage on social media? More importantly what is the responsibility of a preacher in this environment? These are just a few of the tough questions Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is wrestling with. The pastor at the historic First Reformed, now known more as a tourist destination than a spiritual institution, Toller is having what some might call a crisis of faith.
Setting out to spend the year taking an honest look at his job, faith and lingering emotional and physical ailments, this proves to be a far more difficult task than he ever imagined. This is especially true when one of the flock in his sparse congregation, the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), seeks his help with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). An environmental activist recently released from jail, Michael does not think it is right to bring a child into an eroding world.
Unable to muster the words for meaningful prayer in his own life, Toller finds that his theological discussions with Michael about the co-existence of “hope and despair” ignites something in him that he has not felt for years. What follows though, sends Toller down a path that will force him to not only challenge his own beliefs, but also reevaluate the way religion has become a tool for political and financial gains.
Writer/director Paul Schrader, who wrote iconic films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation of Christ to name a few, has frequently touched on themes of faith throughout his work. He seems particularly invigorated by the theological questions in First Reformed. It is not only one of Schrader’s best directorial efforts, but one that respects the audience enough to not hold their hand through the challenging moments.
Just as Toller uses his journal entries to address his internal conflicts, the film forces the viewer to reflect on their own views on religion, big business and nature. As Schrader depicts in several pointed scenes between Toller and the head of the local megachurch (Cedric Kyles aka. Cedric the Entertainer), the notion of living a godly life is no longer as important to many as living a prosperous one.
A surprising and thought-provoking work, First Reformed is one of the year’s must-see films. Regardless of one’s personal views on religion, this film will spark plenty of conversations.