First Reformed is written and directed by Paul Schrader. It stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles.
This film has religious themes. Yet at its core it is a film about the human condition. Ethan Hawke portrays minister Reverend Toller who presides over a handful of attendees in an historic church building. He is employed by mega church Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric Kyles. One of his churchgoers, Mary, a pregnant Amanda Seyfried, seeks Toller’s help with her husband whom she is desperate to keep from being sent back to prison.
The approach to the story is brutal, stark, and emotionally jarring, sensitive viewers should be cautioned about the content as some could find it too disturbing.
The style of the film is the main character. It brought to mind Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece about an aging gunslinger William Munny, in Wyoming circa 1881. The mood and the tone are clearly set as we are introduced to the fragile psychological state of Reverend Toller. His conflict is one that would challenge anyone. He has suffered loss, and in the process, betrayed his personal beliefs, with both physical and emotional consequences. Schrader manages to fill the screenplay with such a large quantity of ideas, you no doubt will miss some, but those that resonate with you will cause you pause.
The grace of this story is that from within it we can draw a relationship with scores of people who face similar issues during their lifetime. You see First Reformed, and you can consider the personal choices you have been making, even if your life looks nothing like any of those on the screen. Beyond that, it provides a polemic on the societies we live in and the world in general, by questioning who is responsible for the ills that surround us. Is it God? Is it mankind? Do our actions define what we believe? Do we have the free will to destroy the planet? If so what does that say about God?
The film will demand that you pay attention, and consider each and every nuanced aspect of the content and how it relates to other aspects of what takes place, in order to appreciate the messages. It becomes clear that this film is in some ways simple on its face, but at the same time complex beyond expectation. You could say that this is a story about religion that doesn’t preach. Or a tragic Shakespearean (sic) rendering of An Inconvenient Truth. What you cannot say is that it doesn’t deliver a powerful punch, a thoughtful story, and a contemplation of our spiritual condition.