The First Reformed is the film I chose to write about for this assignment, it is written and directed by Paul Schrader. A lot of the subjects in the film are relevant to our world today: topics such as climate change, violence, and acts of terrorism. This is not an easy film to categorize: it’s religious and personal.
It is listed as a drama, and I would go as far as to also have it listed as a horror as well. I say that because, it gives a feeling of horror, almost like a horror movie that has a supernatural presence. In this film, however, it’s more like a lack of a supernatural presence. The first image we see is that of the First Reformed church, located in upstate New York, setting the stories location. It looks ambiguous and peaceful until the camera pushes on its facade. The camera looking up, from a downward point of view makes the church an imposing figure. This feeling is important for what will come since the opening act is muted. This technique is most frequently used in horror films, it is done by focusing for a long time on something seemingly benign but known to the audience to hold a hidden danger.
Implying that something more sinister may be at play. A transition to Ethan Hawke, who plays the protagonist Ernst Toller, pastor of First Reformed Church. He is introduced to us through a voice-over: where we hear his thoughts as they are written in a journal, that he plans to destroy after a year. He explains his rules for the journal, but never its intentions. We’ve come to find out that he is having a crisis of faith: the church has few parishioners and a tormented past. A family tradition, which involved him encouraging his son to join the armed forces, six months later learning that his son died in Iraq: his guilt and his wife leaving him appears to be the reason as to why he may be an alcoholic and ignores what seems to be some form of illness. There is a constant insinuation, that this is a man on a downward spiral.
Things start to escalate after a sermon one Sunday, one of the parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller to visit so he can speak to her husband. Toller agrees, meeting with Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is an environmental extremist, worried about the world. Do to all the violence being shown on the news, wars being fought, etc.… The conversation between Toller and Michael is filmed with a shot-reverse-shot while maintaining the 180-degree rule. How the scene was shot highlights the empathy and their engagement between the two. They are sincerely listening to each other, and Toller’s advice is more real-world than anticipated.
Though Michael’s argument creeps into his head. Mary wanted Toller to speak to him because she is pregnant with Michaels son, and he wants her to have an abortion. Toller, who he himself lost his son in the Iraq war, tries to convince Michael that bringing a child into this world is much better than killing it. Michael argues that by the time his child is fully grown, that global warming would have raisin the oceans sea levels. Overpopulation would have caused a worldwide famine. And states that to bring a child into this world is a crime.The film is linear in its structure, while having us one witness two storylines unfold and intertwine by the end.
There is a parallel story alongside with what is happening with Mary and Michael. The church is about to have its 250th anniversary, and arrangements are being made for the big celebration. Toller meets with Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), who runs the nearby megachurch and is the overseer of the festivities. These men are at a well-mannered impasse since they approach their life’s work differently: Jeffers is like a pompous cheerleader of God, while Toller is a serious intellectual.
These preparations undermine Pastor Toller: he is demoted to second chair in his own church, the governor and wealthy donors make all the big decisions. His dislike intertwines together with sympathy for Michael views. As he starts asking some very difficult questions. For example, why doesn’t the church care about what is happening in the world? What dealings does the church have to do with corporate businesses? There are no simple answers, so Toller finds himself drawn toward more irrational thoughts. He starts questioning his faith, and the nature of the faith entirely. In a scene, it shows Toller showing a group of visiting children a secret passage in the church.
This passage leads to a hiding place for runaway slaves. The church was once a way station for the Underground Railroad. Nowadays, however, he doubts the church’s significance. The church is now more of a tourist attraction, where people visit its gift shop, buy t-shirts, and other knickknacks with its logo. His moments of tranquility, which are reoccurring, and are found through substitutions to praying. The film shows Toller indulging in other activities, to the point where nothing is too serious.
Examples of this are women he has had sex with and rejected, and women who want to have sex with him but hasn’t yet. Though through all of this he is willing to help others, there is a moment where Toller returns to Mary’s house, with the front door on the edge of the frame. And it turns out Mary is leading him to the garage, where she shows Toller what she has found. The major conflict is set up in this scene, because covered by blankets are a homemade vest rigged with explosives. Further adding to how much of an environmental extremist Mary’s husband Michael is. The film is a slow-paced movie, it takes longer for “exciting” things to start happening.
After she reveals to Toller that she has discovered that Michael has prepared a suicide vest. Toller, rather than reporting it to the authorities, he takes it with him. Soon after Michael ends up committing suicide and Toller spreads his ashes at a toxic waste dumping plant. The climax of First Reformed is when Toller has now put on the vest he took from Mary’s house, and is wearing it underneath his cassock, with the plan of setting it off at the anniversary. Where there will be a CEO of one of the businesses present, along with other people.
But it isn’t until he sees Mary, that Toller has second thoughts. Everything going on in the film happens in chronological order, overlying the two stories going on by the end of the film.