TV + FILM
In ‘First Reformed’ It’s Faith, Not Doubt, That Creates a Crisis
Author, Speaker + Podcast Host
M y favorite scene in ‘First Reformed’ comes midway through the film when Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) comes across a dead rabbit while tending to the church cemetery. The rabbit has been snared in barbed wire designed to protect the church - a historical landmark - from the onslaught of nature. Toller carefully removes the rabbit, then takes down the fence altogether. He’s tired of harming the living to protect something that’s dead.
From the first scene, Toller is spiritually suffocating. He is alone. Isolated. Haunted by a family tragedy in his past. He can’t find words to pray, and so he journals, remembering that “even the desire to pray is a prayer itself.” But unlike some films, where we’re invited to sit in judgment at the self-made hell of a cold-hearted legalist, First Reformed sympathizes with Toller. He is kind in conversation. He is thoughtful in his faith.
Toller comes alive when asked to visit the severely depressed husband of a faithful parishioner (Amanda Seyfried). He listens. He’s compassionate. He offers wise advice, and he wants to believe for himself, and in his persuasion, briefly does. Toller is Jacob wrestling with God, holding out for a morning he’s not sure will come.
First Reformed is supported by the thriving megachurch next door named Abundant Life, run by Pastor Jeffers (a perfectly serious Cedric the Entertainer), a concerned friend and (mostly) sympathetic ear for Toller to talk with. While Toller is mired in a dark night of the soul, faith comes easy for Jeffers and Abundant Life. The key difference, it seems, is that Toller can’t help but see the world outside the fence, and the church’s role in ruining it, where Abundant Life bubbles with a myopic but sincere message of hope.
I’m hesitant to say more about the plot. This is a film that moves slowly, understates its reveals, lingers on images. Letting ‘First Reformed’ hypnotize you, take you in, and revealing itself is part of its power. This is a film that evokes the feeling of a crisis of faith, not so much in God, but his church. How can one serve Christ, when his bride is whoring herself out to the highest bidder?
In First Reformed Toller’s holy discontent is directed toward climate change, but there are a number of other travesties you can substitute. Pick your tension point: self-identifying white evangelicals have increased their support for a president who brags about sexual assault and cheated on his wife with a playboy playmate weeks after she gave birth. The Southern Baptist Convention had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into recognizing that it’s crusading defender of inerrancy, Paige Patterson, actually was the misogynist he never pretended not to be. Evangelicalism today is all-too-willing to abandon the clear teachings of Jesus in the name of political expediency, leaving those unwilling to go down that path isolated and alone, robbed of spiritual community.
I don’t connect with films about faith easily. So many are made by outsiders, speculating what true faith must feel like, and getting it wrong. But ‘First Reformed’ was created by Paul Schrader, a man who knows the inside of the church world intimately. Schrader was raised in a strict, hyper-reformed community and didn’t see a film until seventeen. He went to Calvin College, minored in theology, and still identifies as a church-attending Christian.
It’s this familiarity, the sense it was made by “one of us,” that gives the film such power. This isn’t a Hollywood screed against fundamentalism and faith, but a film made by a true believer, wondering how a man of faith can live in a world where the fundamentals no longer matter. Toller, ultimately, is not tortured by his doubt in God, but his belief. He’s a man tired of tending to a mausoleum that only wants to spread its death.