This is a film competent enough to hook you from the very first minute. Perhaps not for people alien to the sudden changes across the planet right now, but certainly for those connected with our fast-spinning world. There are so many issues: global warming, social woes, religious extremism, plus despair and hopelessness in the air. What does the future hold for us? Are we heading towards the end of times? Would you risk bringing a new life into an overpopulated world with little perspective of a bright future?
Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) provides counsel to a young environmental activist by trying to answer these questions. He wants his wife (Amanda Seyfried, pictured above) to abort their child because he’s concerned about the apocalyptic possibilities ahead. This talk, which lasts no more than 5 minutes, is immediately riveting. These are the sames questions many of us ask ourselves everyday at the face of so much adversity in the world. So we join Reverend Toller in his existential journey in life seeking answers and a meaningful mission.
There is a revelation in the movie that feels like a punch in the face, when Reverend Toller questions the very purpose of priests and reverends: is it all just about reading out mass sermons? The script reveals a deep theological conflict: on one hand there’s our allegiance to God, Mother Earth and the constant search for personal amelioration, while on the other hand there’s forgiveness as a consequence of our sinful nature.
The film is mostly set around the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the First Reformed Church, a religious institution sponsored by a private firm. While the Church is heavily reliant on such sponsorship in order to survive, it becomes apparent that this business doesn’t care about the environment and God’s creation – another conflict highlighted in the film.
These conflicts drive Reverend Toller to a place of desolation, guilt and revolt. And yet more philosophical questions are raised. What’s missing in our search for a more settled life? And what can we do? The answers might be obvious to some of us, but they are not as crystal-clear to the people in the film, many of whom have recently grappled with traumatic experiences.
The end of First Reformed is particularly thrilling. The unanswered questions pile up, the tension escalates. You will hold firmly to your seat while your adrenaline pumps up. Finally, Schrader delivers a very twisted and unexpected solution. And it’s up to you to decide whether you would do the same in real life.
Ethan Hawke’s delivers a superb performance, and he might get an Oscar nomination for it. This might be one of the greatest roles dealing with existentialism in the history of cinema. Amanda Seyfried is also very convincing: she carries not just a baby inside her womb, but she also personifies hope.
First Reformed premiered at the 74th Venice International Film Festival in 2017, when this piece was originally written. It showed at Sundance London in May/June 2o18. It is out on general release on Friday, July 13th. It’s out of Rakuten and other VoD platforms on Monday, November 5th