By Khaleel Herbert
Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) of First Reformed Church in a small New York town jots in a notebook and carries a voiceover throughout the film to make note of his thoughts and feelings for a whole year. He promises to destroy the notebook when the year is over.
Toller struggles to find hope. Who can blame him? He sent his son into the army as a family tradition, but was killed in Iraq. He and his wife called it quits on holy matrimony and he’s not the picture of health, likely because of the alcohol he guzzles down as he writes in his journal.. Despite his personal despair, he manages to uplift his few followers every Sunday with God’s word.
Everything changes when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant wife, asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger). Michael is an activist against global warming who protested and was arrested in Canada. Since his homecoming, he’s been in utter depression, wondering if it’s right to bring a child into an unsafe world.
Michael relays facts about pollution and the end of the world and Toller begins to see the world with a different perspective. Toller begins looking into global warming and the effects of pollution from energy companies such as Balq, the main sponsor of the Abundant Life Church led by Toller’s friend, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles).
“First Reformed” is a modern reincarnation of Schrader’s Robert De Niro classic “Taxi Driver” 40 plus years later. Schrader takes ordinary people and allows them to do extraordinary tasks. Like Travis, Toller notices a big problem in the world that spills into his world: global warming and pollution. He wonders why other pastors aren’t concerned about this issue. Jeffers brings some consoling with the story of Noah’s Ark and the idea off pollution as God’s will.
Toller wants to solve this problem in his own way. If he can’t solve the problem in its entirety, he can at least solve a portion of it. Travis felt the same way about the gangs, prostitution and other scum of New York City. So he decided to solve part of the problem by acquiring weapons and helping Iris (a young Jodie Foster) escape the prostitution ring she was involved in.
Although “First Reformed” is a drama with a dreary tone, there are some humorous scenes. Jeffers describes how one church song was written in an outhouse. There was also a scene where Toller told Esther (Victoria Hill), a friend who wants to take care of him, how much he despises her and her hovering over him like his wife used to do. In the next scene, he writes in his notebook about how much better he felt for telling her off.
There is also a scene where Mary visits Toller in his home and she explains how she and Michael would have a thing where they would lay on top of each other fully clothed and listen to each other breathing. She wants to do this with Toller. He lays on his hardwood floor and she lays on top of him and they begin to levitate with various backgrounds of outer space, companies emitting smog and other oddities behind them, giving the scene the feel of a psychedelic rock and roll music video.
“First Reformed” challenges the spiritual and unspiritual alike on issues we face in modern society and how they can be solved, or at least, examined more closely.
Studio: A24 (1 hr. 50 min)
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles, Victoria Hill, Phillip Ettinger, Michael Gaston
Director: Paul Schrader
Story: A pastor’s faith is challenged in the face of an activist’s view on climate change.
Final Score: A