MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried.
We are clearly living during a time of great turmoil and anxiety in which our nation is experiencing rifts and discord over a variety of topics, including politics, religion and the environment. The last time things were this dismal the country was fighting a war in Viet Nam and civil rights tore neighborhoods apart. In 1976, Paul Schrader, a young film critic (raised as a strict Calvinist in the Christian Reformed Church) wrote the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The film was a brutal depiction of the squalor and depravity of New York city streets and the struggles of a naïve and disturbed Viet Nam vet (Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle) to make moral sense out of it all.
Forty-two years later, Schrader offers us another troubled soul in the character of Rev. Ernst Toller (Hawke), also a war veteran, whose pain in internalized as he goes about his daily responsibilities as pastor of First Reformed Church in upstate New York, a small historic landmark with a gift shop and daily tours. Toller holds Sunday worship services to a congregation of about twenty, but the church is a mission station for Abundant Life Ministries, the nearby megachurch, led by Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles).
Rev. Toller lives a solitary, sad life but one filled with deep contemplation about eternal verities, existing in a monk-like setting inside the next-door parsonage, with just a single bed and a desk as furniture. He decides to begin a daily journal to document his musings, which we hear in voiceover.
One day after church a young woman named Mary (Seyfried) asks him to meet with her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger). Mary is pregnant and her husband has just returned home from his work with an environmental activist group. Michael is convinced that the world is headed for oblivion and humanity will soon become extinct. He wants Mary to abort the baby and Mary hopes that Rev. Toller might encourage him to reconsider this option. The two men meet and Rev. Toller finds his faith questioned and challenged by Michael’s despair. Toller finds the whole discussion exhilarating; at last his faith has something significant to push up against.
First Reformed goes into a number of surprising directions after this initial encounter. As we learn more about the pain that Toller carries with him (including physical illness and alcoholism), the world outside of the church begins to intrude. Principalities and powers are at work to not only lure First Reformed and Abundant Life towards hypocrisy, but to seduce Rev. Toller to follow a self-destructive path.
This is serious stuff, indeed, but the film is a masterpiece of film art that takes its time to ponder the unanswerable questions of faith that religion cannot explain away. The apostle Paul once wrote “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:25) This film may test your patience and it will surely upset many who watch it to its enigmatic conclusion. But if you are in the mood for a mature film about faith (and if you were among the few who appreciated Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence), I encourage you to seek out First Reformed. In anxious times like these, we need to ponder deep things accompanied by the abiding presence of God.
Four halos: Spiritual struggles, existential dread and redemption are depicted in stunning and provocative fashion.
Four pitchforks: Scenes of graphic violence; binge drinking; intermixing of spiritual and sexual tension; suicidal tendencies.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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