First Reformed….or HOW I DESTROYED A PRIEST IN 10 DAYS.
Paul Schrader’s religious study of human frailty is heavy on ideas and questions of faith, sacrifice, and theories of predestination, but he doesn’t explore these questions thoroughly and shows his hand too frequently. I’ve read that Schrader was inspired to make the movie from his Calvinist upbringing, and it could be argued that the film is as much an attack on organized religion as it is an endorsement.
*I’m going to discuss some plot points that are not expressly evident in the film synopsis and some elements that unfold that are important to the discussion of the themes, so if you don’t want to read any plot details stop now.
The protagonist in First Reformed is an ailing, emotionally wounded pastor, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), who is an amalgamation of loss and pain. Reverend Toller exists mostly in isolation, living a solemn life in a sparse church house and presiding over a congregation of very few. His church is only kept alive by the support of the financially successful church nearby, Abundant Life, presided over by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles aka The Entertainer), whose moral compass is questionably absent in the face of financial survival (I’ll come back to this).
One day after church, Reverend Toller meets a pregnant parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who requests counseling from the reverend for her distraught husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is an environmental activist who has recently been released from detainment for participating in protests over destruction of the rainforest.
It’s this interaction that provides the theological basis for the film’s politics. The two men pose dialectical arguments for predestination and faith and questions of choice versus preordination. Michael wants to terminate Sarah’s pregnancy because, as an environmentalist, he understands the predicament our world is in and feels guilt about bringing a life into a world that is destined to become extinct. As a priest, Reverend Toller imparts theological rebuttals to these arguments, but these answers only lead to more questions.
Contextually, the arguments are made all the more enlightening because of the mental and physical state of Reverend Toller. We find out as the movie moves along that he was once married and had a son who was shipped off to the military, in the family tradition, and dies in Afghanistan. As a result, Reverend Toller’s marriage dissolves and he finds the priesthood as a perfect fit for his lonely despair. He finds a small amount of safety in faith and through his past suffering he is able to impart counsel to others. To top it off, he is a closeted alcoholic who engaged in a sexual transgression with the choir mistress and is suffering from what is insinuated to be stomach cancer.
Just before he is about to meet with Michael for a second time to continue their discussion, Michael commits suicide.
When I say that the film is built to tear down this man of faith, I mean it. But is this necessary to present the ideas of faith? Schrader clearly wants to question the weight of faith versus the potential of action. Michael believes that we must DO something to save ourselves, while religion teaches us to have faith in the Lord’s plan. Reverend Toller is the symbol for both God and man, so what is Schrader trying to express about the frailty of each?
If Reverend Toller wasn’t damaged, would the arguments carry less weight? Films about priests tend to highlight their humanity and shortcomings in the face of their religious persona as a “Holy Man”, but this one uses these faults to create something more extreme. Reverend Toller is a flawed man, more flawed and broken than most, and it seems to be the intent of the film to show that continued faith only causes more pain. The more we choose faith over physical discourse, the further we fall.
Once this has been established the film poses the most rudimentary of religious questions: why do bad things happen to good people? The depth of discussion is shallow and is presented more as a challenge to those of faith than anything of substance. It’s more like, how does someone of faith deal with this basic question? We’re left with the lingering effects of the insinuation that God is not helping us. This dialectical argument of faith versus action is ever-apparent and skews Reverend Toller to be a person of action.
Does this mean that he abandons faith? It’s hard to say.
Another factor that is not well handled is the economical factor and the constant argument that the church is merely a financial institution. Pastor Jeffers is in the back pocket of the local company that poses a major environmental hazard, Balq Industries. It should come as no shock that the CEO, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), is a significant financial contributor to Abundant Life. This is a ham-handed way of weaving the issue of Michael’s suicide into the partnership between the two churches. Balq sees Reverend Toller’s involvement with Mary after Michael’s death as a complicit political act of defiance against his company.
Before you know it, Reverend Toller is a climate change advocate who spouts scientific evidence at both Balq and Pastor Jeffers in between quoting scripture. Huh?
Sadly, through this interaction, class politics are also brought into the equation. Reverend Toller and Pastor Jeffers are on opposite ends of the financial spectrum and represent the disparate socioeconomic classes. Abundant Life (note the term “abundant”) is a state-of-the-art facility with giant TVs and live simulcasting of church services, while First Reformed is a tiny, dank building with a broken organ and creaking doors.
First Reformed church is referred to in a derogatory sense as “the souvenir shop” and is only seen as a tourist attraction due to its age and historical weight as a former refuge along the Underground Railroad. Much of the film builds towards a climax as the church is about to celebrate its 250 year anniversary and a major celebration is to be held with all the big-wigs in town. This, obviously, causes a rift as Balq Industries is a presence in the ceremony.
This may be hard to believe, but by the end of the movie we’re left with a ceremony full of people of importance and a pastor with a suicide bomb vest under his priestly garments. No, I’m not kidding.
The film has a defined agenda in disseminating the idea of the evil capitalistic, soulless upper-class as the reason for the downfall of our world. I hate to lay it out so blunt, but the film is so superficial in its intent that it can’t be ignored. In the end, the film decides that we have replaced faith with capitalism and we will suffer the consequences.
With all this being said, this is a good film. Ethan Hawke is great in his part and many of the theological discussions are interesting (even if the film goes out of its way to demonstrate the Bible is contradictory and paradoxical). The look of the film is bleak and muted, and presented in a rare aspect ratio of 1.37:1 so as not to create an enveloping world. It is supposed to push you back and make you think as opposed to engross you.
While the film has intentions of provoking thought and intellectual discourse, it comes to its own conclusions and removes much of the hypothetical from the conversation. It doesn’t ask a question and leave you to answer it, it asks the question and then slams you in the face with the agenda. I still want to think more, but overall I don’t agree with everything it has to say. See it for yourself, though. It’s worth it.