“Will God forgive us?” — Toller (Ethan Hawke, First Reformed)
First Reformed tells the story of Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military veteran and pastor of the First Reformed Church. Preparing to celebrate their 250th anniversary, the church has become largely ceremonial, with most parishioners having moved over to the local megachurch, led by charismatic Pastor Jeffries (Cedric the Entertainer). A former military veteran and father to a deceased child, Toller seeks desperately to ‘feel alive’ again in his ministry and finds himself called to the home of a suicidal parishioner for counselling. When tragedy strikes, Toller finds himself torn between counseling the victim’s grieving widow (Amanda Seyfried) and his own creeping personal issues.
Written and directed by the legendary Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Afflicted), First Reformed reveals the hidden realities of church ministry, ugliness and all. As Toller, Hawke offers a strong but subtle performance, portraying him as both warm and broken. He is a man who is constantly ‘in the garden’ of suffering, emotionally and physically, clinging to a faith that seems irrelevant to the culture in which he lives.
However, in the death of his parishioner, he finds new life as he begins to question what it means to express his faith in the 21st Century. By re-examining his passions and calling, Toller’s crisis of faith leads him into conflict with established religion, eventually putting him at odds with his friend, Pastor Jeffries. Focused on massive budgets and state-of-the-art technology, Jeffries’ megachurch provides a fascinating contrast to Toller and First Reformed by showcasing the potential hypocrisy of the ‘ministry as big business’ mentality. While Jeffries speaks of meeting with people of importance and spectacle, Toller demonstrates an increasingly deeper interest in justice issues such as the Underground Railroad and environmental conservation. This juxtaposition of ideologies highlights the dangers of ‘cultural spirituality’ and begs the question of where the church’s responsibility lies today. As the film goes on, Toller increasingly agonizes over important cultural issues, to the extent that he wonders if God will forgive us for our selfishness.
In light of this, First Reformed plays out as both call to the church and challenge to it as well. Schrader’s script depicts the angst of one who clearly wishes the church will come alive by recognizing its potential role to affect change in our world. As a result, First Reformed portrays the church as both hopeful and irrelevant by highlighting the lack of interest in social issues in favor of spiritual entertainment. Broken by his personal history, Toller’s journey also reveals the impact that a person (or church) can have to affect change but also questions to what lengths they must go to do so.
For audio of our interview with writer/director Paul Schrader, listen below:
For audio of our interview with Cedric the Entertainer, listen below: