Man’s struggle with God can almost be as endearing yet painful as his struggle against man. If there is one way to sum up the excellent film, ‘First Reformed’, that would be it. First Reformed (2017) focuses on the environment, one’s faith, and the struggle to find hope when things seem rather bleak. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?”, a troubled environmental activist asks Pastor Ernst Toller and the Pastor replies to his congregant, “Who can know the mind of God?”
While this movie did not receive any Oscar awards, the acting by Ethan Hawke (Pastor Ernst Toller) and also by Amanda Seyfried (Mary) is excellent as well as the cinematography, the adapted screenplay by Director Paul Schrader which helps this film earn its critical acclaim and some Independent Spirit award nominations as well as one Academy Award nomination. I still believe Mr. Hawke was snubbed from getting an Oscar nomination since this film’s performance was one of the best he has ever done and deserved more praise. In many of his films, I find him to be one of the best actors of his generation and able to produce genuine emotion regardless of the situation his character finds himself in.
In ‘First Reformed’, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) finds himself faced with difficult questions surrounding his faith, morality, the environment in 2017, and what lies ahead in the future for humanity. These are weighty questions for anyone to deal with let alone a pillar of a community like Toller finds himself to be in Snowbridge, New York as the head pastor for the colonial era First Reformed church that dates back to the time of British colonization and the underground railroad movement later on.
This historical church is seen to be losing its membership and interest and Pastor Toller has to resort to touristic gimmicks and a small gift shop to help make ends meet to keep the church going. There is a noticeable parallel to the decline of Christianity in terms of active members of the Christian church in the United States so a fictional movie such as this one has some real-life parallels that seem plausible. The crisis of faith in churches in certain communities has a coinciding similarity with Toller’s own faith in God and in himself. He is an alcoholic struggling to find meaning and purpose in his life at the beginning of the film.
While making the church more touristy, he has also made the church more spiritual as well instead of its Calvinist origins. He sticks more to sermons than to scriptures and has enlisted the financial backing and ownership of an evangelical megachurch in nearby Albany, New York, which is likely to take over the church in the near future much to Toller’s apprehension. As we go through the film, we peel back the curtain on who this pastor is and like any of us, he has his own personal flaws and past sins but has also suffered for them and wishes to make amends in some way.
We find out that Pastor Toller lost his son, Joseph, recently while serving in the Iraq War and feels guilt for having told him to enlist having come from a military background himself as a chaplain. During that difficult time, he committed adultery and started drinking but also found his faith again to then become a pastor at First Reformed after going through grieving his son’s loss. However, a chance encounter with one of his congregants and his wife puts his faith in God and humanity to the ultimate test.
Mary, a devout congregant and believer in God and her skeptical husband, Michael, a stern environmentalist and becoming increasingly radical meet with Pastor Toller separately in their house. Mary has concerns about Michael’s well-being and tells the Pastor they expect to have a child soon. Michael is sincerely struggling with the fact that he will be a father soon when the world’s ecosystems are steadily collapsing, sea levels are rising, and the effects of global climate change are to be felt beginning in the next few decades. For any of us watching this pivotal scene including Pastor Toller himself, there are no easy answers from God or from man either regarding the future of humanity. Ernest finds it difficult to comfort Michael but asks to keep seeing him and to look out for Mary and the unborn child.
This particular scene leads to the rest of the film’s deeper dive into the effects of capitalism and greed on the environment as well as the relationship between big industry and religious institutions. Pastor Toller’s awakening from meeting with Mary and Michael leads him to questioning why the environmental situation is so dire, who is responsible for it, what can be done to stop it, and how far should measures be taken. Because the Pastor has no easy answers for Michael, he starts looking for them and is obviously dismayed by what he finds out regarding the local environmental situation in his community and how greed, industry, and the lack of stewardship for his community have led humanity down towards an unsustainable path.
Without spoiling the film, The Pastor struggles with what he can do as one individual to counteract the forces aligned against good stewardship of the planet and what a person can do to draw attention to the problem. Not only is there a crisis of faith in God but in each other and what is being done to the only planet we have ever known. The Pastor, with certain health issues related to alcoholism, is reconciling with the fact that he is mortal and what kind of impact he wants to leave behind.
He is comforted by the fact that Mary is still a believer in the future and wants to have a child even with the future of the planet looking relatively bleak. Pastor Toller knows however that he has the responsibility now to hold those accountable for their actions whether it’s the Evangelical church, a big industrialist doing environmental damage, or even himself when he strays from helping those in his congregation who need it the most.
‘First Reformed’ poses a lot of weighty questions and it is an extremely timely film in terms of its messages and themes. It is bleak because it has to be and raises a lot of issues that we have neglected regarding the environment and now we may be finding that time to make a difference in this escalating problem is running out. ‘First Reformed’ asks us how an ordinary man of faith yet a pillar of the community so respond to those in his congregation who are in despair regarding environmental damage and destruction.
How far should he go and how radical should he be to get people to listen and understand what is being done? Can love and faith overcome the desire to do harm and take revenge against those who have sinned against the planet? Like any good film, there are no easy answers and the director does not condone or condemn the thoughts or possible actions that Pastor Toller weights leading up to the climax of the last scene.
What this film does an excellent job of is warning its viewers about the consequences of greed, ignorance, lack of stewardship, valuing profits over the health and well-being of people, and the unholy alliance of organized religion and big industries. There are numerous fingers to point at regarding the worsening state of climate change going on in the world currently but perhaps those who watch this excellent film will realize that the finger should be pointed at ourselves first about the damage being done. Perhaps that kind of introspective thinking is what it will take for massive external action to occur and for the worst of the consequences to be avoided.