First Reformed (2018)

Paul Schrader’s gripping First Reformed links a lonely priest’s spiritual and physical torment to the global environmental threat to the future of the earth.

Diary of a Country Priest

by Alexa Dalby

First Reformed

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Ethan Hawke is superb in the role of his life as Reverend Toller, the tormented pastor of a historic Dutch Reformed church in an American small town. We first see him in a dark night of the soul writing his diary in his solitary, deliberately austere living quarters. Hawke bristles with guilt and anguish: his loneliness and sacrifice seems to be a self-imposed living penance. A former army chaplain, his wife left him because he pressured their son to enlist for Iraq, where he was killed.

Yet how meaningful is his bleak penance? His church is a 250-year-old chocolate-box tourist attraction with a handful of congregants, where he struggles to raise the money to repair the organ. It’s a mere satellite of the thriving mega-church in the next town – Abundant Life, run by the dominating, pragmatic, professional Pastor Jeffers (a wonderful acting debut for comedian Cedric the Entertainer, Cedric Kyles).

Toller is approached for help by a pregnant parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). She wants him to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmentalist, just released from prison for his activism, who wants her to abort their child because he does not want to bring a child into a world whose environment is being destroyed.

Toller’s gripping debate with Michael and subsequent attempts to help Mary end tragically. What it brings him in contact with sets him on a new path of even more mental self-flagellation. The film is not without elements of humour as veteran director Paul Schrader (Dog Eat Dog and so many more) takes Toller’s anguish and widens it to encompass the commercialisation of religion, the urgency of global environmental concerns and the hidden connections between big-business polluters and the church. And meanwhile Toller is suffering physically as well as spiritually – the signs are that he may have some form of painful cancer that he is leaving untreated but is self-medicating late at night with whisky.

First Reformed is a compelling slow burn. As what started as a country priest’s story picks up multiple moral complexities of pain and anger, it darkens almost unbearably, literally and metaphorically. At first interiors are shot and lit in the style of Dutch paintings of the same era as the church, restrained, static and framed like still lifes. But as the moral ground gets muddied, the colour palette gets murkier. Finally, the film breaks free and soars into a staggering scene of transcendence followed by shock and final ambiguity in an ending that will stay with you.

First Reformed premiered in the UK at London Sundance ’18 and is released on 11 July 2018 in the UK.

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