First Reformed is a mesmerizing drama about a pastor who counsels a husband and wife.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former Army chaplain, is a pastor at the First Reformed Church in the fictional town of Snowbridge, N.Y. The Dutch Reform church has grown some fame by having been a station on along the Underground Railround. However, as the church approaches 250 years, it doesn’t contain the magic that used to be there. While tourists continue to visit the historical site, the pews aren’t filled week in and week in. This isn’t helped by the parent church, Abundant Life, dwarfing First Reformed in size. The parent church is by head pastor Reverend Joel Jeffers. To put things in perspective, Abundant Life is one those TV-style churches with a huge facility and congregation of nearly 5,000 members.
Enter the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) as she seeks Toller’s advice for her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael was recently released from jail in Canada. Falling into the category of radical environmentalism, Michael and Mary have conflicting views in some aspects. As Toller counsels the two of them, he finds himself in a whole new world while dealing with his own health issues. As Toller gets educated on the environment, he finds himself in a complicated situation because of the funding that helps keep him employed.
Abundant Life gets a lot of its funding from Balq Industries, whose CEO, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), is expected to speak at the celebration because money talks. Balq also has a history of polluting the environment. As Toller starts to educate himself about Balq, he finds himself in one pickle of a predicament. Should lobbyists be able to wield the same power in a house of worship as they seem to do in a legislature? Probably not.
An indie stalwart, Hawke is no stranger to these kind of films. In the film, Hawke delivers what very well may be his career-best performance as Ernst Toller. There’s so much inner turmoil beneath the surface. While these emotions aren’t easy to act out on screen, Hawke goes above and beyond in acting out Toller’s despair.
Schrader’s script is one that takes into account the frequent mixing of faith and politics. How much should one’s political views and money dictate what is said at the pulpit? While there’s an easy answer, this film doesn’t make it appear that way. In any event, the ending of First Reformed stays with you after the credits finish rolling. It’s a lot to take in.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Paul Schrader
CAST: Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke, and Cedric Kyles
Following its world premiere at the the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. A24 will release First Reformed in select theaters on May 18, 2018 followed by a theatrical expansion. The film is expected to go wide on June 8, 2018.