Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) faithfully pastors the 250-year-old First Reformed Church, even as he struggles with his guilt and grief over the death of his son in Iraq and the dissolution of his marriage. He is no longer sure that God hears his prayers, and he doubts that he is lovable by another human being.
Enter Michael (Peter Ettinger) and Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a couple who need his counsel as they struggle in marriage and impending parenthood. Michael despairs that the world is beyond saving, having joined an extremist group of environmental activists fighting climate change, and wonders how they could bring a child into the world, pushing for abortion. When Michael takes his own life, Toller is the only one Mary can turn to for support.
While the couple’s issues grow intertwined in Toller’s life, he continues to push away choir director Esther (Victoria Hill), with whom he’s previously half-attempted a relationship, and struggles with the church’s anniversary service that is bankrolled by the megachurch Abundant Life and its chief financial sponsor, an industrialist with no qualms about his impact on the environment. Toller’s involvement with Michael and Mary raises concerns he has about the financial involvement of the industrialist, and whether the church is doing enough to make a difference in caring for the world in the present sense.
There are so many issues in the tightly wound wires of the film, ideas like Toller’s own doubts about God’s communicating with him, the way we handle guilt in parents after the death of their children, the church’s failure to be present in a meaningful way, the impact of money and the need for it within church, the general reaction to despair and depression, and the sense of “unloveableness” that keeps people from real relationships. While I doubt that director Paul Schrader and I would agree about the ways to move forward from here, I am convinced that we do agree about several of the criticisms that the film he wrote and directed raise.
How will we handle the pain people experience in a way that is meaningful? What do we do with questions that we can’t answer? Where do we provide space for people in pain who struggle with guilt, shame, and grief they can’t handle on their own? What can we do to separate the church from financial relationships that betray its core values?
First Reformed doesn’t provide many answers to the questions it raises, but it does leave us with a sense that love will provide us a way through. That’s an answer that I can agree with.