The Movie First Reformed Unpacked and Explained
The Movie First Reformed Unpacked and Explained - or how a quiet Ethan Hawke movie might be a truly profound exegetical exposition of the Christian faith.
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It’s really really rare that I watch an Ethan Hawke movie that I do not like. Really rare. And usually? They blow my mind. The Before Sunrise series are rapidly overtaking all other trilogies as my favorite – of all time. Predestination – on par with all mind job comers of all time. I mean, it’s impossible to up that ante. Or, if closed box movies are your thing the movie Tape? Anyone? Bueller? Wow, so much goodness there. And now we have the movie First Reformed unpacked and explained. You (and I) are lucky! So very lucky. 

So what is this slow paced thinker movie, First Reformed, all about? Well, it’s really hard to say, without giving too much away. Heck, here’s what IMDB has to say about it: “A priest of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past.” That seems non-commital enough! hahah. I think the movie is widely available now though, no? So you should be able to watch, like oh, I don’t know, how about this link RIGHT HERE? And here’s a trailer for good measure…

First Reformed Warnings and Errata

First we have to make sure that from here on out, we are all abundantly clear on one thing… spoilers abound from here on out. Ok? Great. With that said, ooooh how I love the mood and the layers of sedentary that just sift out of the sky here. The mood of this movie just makes me giddy. Oh, by the way, if you are a Trumpian Christian church goer? This movie will make you hurt. And I’m very happy about that fact. Oh, and by the way, I don’t plan to pull any punches on that front. So, if that will make you hate me… maybe you should just click this link here instead of  listening to my explanation of how this movie works. Ok? I do think you are great – but it’s because I think so much of you, I am not going to tell you want to hear. So freakin’ buckle up, because this is going to be a bumpy ride, and I’m in zero mood. 

First Reformed Walk Through

So, um, where was I? Oh, right! I was moved by the cascading layers of mood-precipitate that cover everything in this movie. Cover it with an intensely profound residuum of pain and hurt. What is causing this pain? As the movie starts, we really have no idea. All we know is that Reverend Ernst Toller (played by Ethan Hawke) of the First Reformed church in Snowbridge New York is hurting. And in an attempt to control this almost effervescent angst, Reverend Toller begins journaling the varying nuances of his thoroughly complicated life. 

What could possibly be complicated about running a failing 250 year old church? Well, this Dutch Reformed Church is being kept on life support by the local megachurch, Abundant Life, which happens to own the church and has placed Toller there in the pulpit of Snowbridge. Oh, and did I mention that Toller was originally a military chaplain? And as such, he encouraged his son to enlist… and he is subsequently killed in Iraq. Which, then causes his wife to leave him. And so, our Reverend Toller, when we first meet him… to not put too fine a point on it, is a hot mess. (IMHO, Toller should be studied in a master class about character development. Schraeder is amazing at this. But you’d expect nothing less from the creator of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, etc.)

Toller is struggling. And he’s pretty clear that “this isn’t the church that I’ve been called to.” And in this quote, we get the sense that Toller isn’t referring to the building, and these few people. But rather, to the larger Ecclesia. He’s talking about Christendom at large. This church? This body of believers? This is not what my calling was for. Which, in my opinion, is the larger message of First Reformed. (Notice how the title of the movie is a noun, and it’s also call to action simultaneously?) We know that Toller doesn’t mind being alone. He doesn’t mind the solitude, or more pastoral (hahahah, sorry, that pun caught me off guard) living. But he does mind the secularism of the faith, the gift-shop-ifying of the Church. He minds our attitudes and our opinions of God at large. 

As the movie opens, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried) informs Rev. Toller that her husband, Michael (played by Philip Ettinger) is having a truly difficult time. And Toller begins counseling with Michael, who, it would appear, is something of a hardcore eco-activist. A despairing and deflated environment friendly individual that has lost all hope that the world will survive our feckless abuse. So much so, that his wife Mary finds a suicide vest in the garage the next day that she believes he may use to send a political message of some kind about what we have done to the world. But Toller takes the vest, and Mary chooses not to say anything about what she found.

Only glitch? The next day, Michael asks Toller to come meet him to talk at a trail head, only to find that Michael has committed suicide. But Reverend Toller and Mary decide it would be better to keep the police from digging too deeply into his eco-terrorism aspirations. So they don’t mention the vest, and they hide Michael’s laptop from the police. I mean, why besmirch Michael’s reputation if he’s dead… right? 

Modern Politics Of The Church and First Reformed

After Michael’s death, Toller dives deeper into the preparations for the church’s 250th anniversary. Toller’s days are filled with fixing the pipe organ, fixing the plumbing and planning out the schedule of the actual service. And occasionally he finds himself spending time with Mary, and assisting her in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide. 

But as Toller spends more and more time with the pastor of Abundant Life, Reverend Joel Jeffers (played by Cedric the Entertainer), the weirder this relationship feels. And weird goes all the way to downright gag reflex when Toller meets with Jeffers and Edward Balq (played by Michael Gaston), Snowbridge’s patron, and funder for the 250th anniversary. And when Balq mentions to Jeffers that Toller was out of line to conduct Michael’s funeral at a ecological disaster area, Jeffers shuts Toller down. Tells him that the politics are to stop. 

So stop here. Think about this. We have a large donor, doing good things for Snowbridge. Refurbishing the pipe organ, keeping the old church alive. And yet, when Toller participates in Michael’s last will in testament to send something of a message to the world about a nearby ecologically abused area? Balq shuts him down. What’s this a metaphor of? The sellout of the Christian gospel to the highest bidder? And when Toller learns that Balq Industries is one of the top five polluters in the nation it calcifies his newly formed position against pollution all the more. 

Toller’s Striving for Authenticity

In a movie full of Christians, it would seem as though the only one striving for a deep and meaningful life of change and authenticity is our broken and double minded Reverend. His journaling is an exercise in brutal honesty with himself that is excruciating on the easiest of days, and yet, he continues to do it day after day. Snowbridge seems to a be a shell of what it once was, filled with a broken and irrelevant constituency. And over at ‘Abundant Life’ we are presented with the trappings of exciting and abundant life, but we are shown that it may very well be entirely fake. But here we are given a picture from Schrader of authentic Christianity in the struggles of a man warring with himself over doing the right thing at every single turn, every single day. 

When assisting at a youth group meeting over at Abundant Life, one of the women asks why would God allow his father to be laid off? He loves God after all. And when Toller answers with, “There’s a lot of church people, good Christians who see a connection between godliness and prosperity. But that’s not what Jesus teaches, that’s not what Jesus lived. There’s no dollar sign in his pulpit. There’s no American flag either.” he is ridiculed by one of the other guys in the group. “Oh I see, Christians shouldn’t succeed. Christianity is for losers. That’s what the Reverend means.” Which is just a stand in argument among the varying denominational vantages that are hellbent on reading into the gospel pretty much anything they wish. And all the while, Toller is just struggling to stay alive, let alone live a life of “abundant life”. 

Ultimately, Toller finds himself compelled to act, to stop the egregious evils fronted by Abundant Life, and its money changing backers. He decides that he has to say something, do something, even violently to stop these evils. And so he decides to use the explosive vest to blow everyone up at the 250th recommissioning ceremony. But in order to do so, he needs to get Mary to not come to the ceremony. But she comes, and Toller and ultimately stops from setting off the vest. And in so doing he actually sees Mary for the first time, kissing her. Fin. 

Overarching Thoughts on First Reformed

I have to say that from an Evangelical point of view (of which I am) there wasn’t much here I disagreed with theologically. I mean, besides the fact that Toller was a flawed character (let’s be honest, which of us isn’t flawed?) but that only helps us to root for him all the more. I adored the full frontal attack made by Toller and Schrader on the current state of the Trumpian Evangelical Church – and the summation of the need to act – even violently – countered by the desire to live a Godly life, and give grace even to the most offensive of us. If that isn’t good theology, I’m unclear on what good theology is.May very well be an unpopular Christian opinion, but I relate to Toller more than most modern day portrayals of happiness and glee.

When Schrader wrote in his book, transcendental style (which he wrote at 24) that “no artist or style has cornered the transcendental market. … Spirituality in art must have to move, to change with the times and the arts.” We see that we are watching a specifically spiritual movie with eternal consequences, it more has to do with the expression of existential hopelessness that can lead to metaphorical and literal death. And ultimately the rendering and exploration of the possibilities of the intervention of the divine in our every day lives. We see that Mary is the Godly answer to Toller’s psychological, philosophical, and physical crisis that he had been missing all along.  

But along the way, Schrader has a few things to say about the state of the Christian Church union that we Christians would do well to listen to and not slough off as the ramblings of some random heathen. The message that I see Christ calls us to throughout the Bible is a life of selflessness. The metaphor Christ uses to describe it? Is of daily, climbing up onto a cross, and dying to one’s self. The last I checked, daily suicide shouldn’t be simple, or flippantly easy, in any way. But maybe that’s just me. 

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11 Responses

  1. Elisabeth de Boer

    It is interesting that the main character’s last name means “tax collector” (in German), no doubt a reference to the special role these play in the gospel.

  2. Andrew

    You either really got the ending all wrong or you didn’t take the time to understand it. The ending isn’t that he saw her, nor is it that he didn’t. Its ambiguous. Read the article on Vulture for more clarity, you did well till the part where you chewed the ending into one paragraph

    • Lisa

      I just came from reading that article myself because I wasn’t aware there was a post here about this film. I found it shocking somewhat that the film barreled in one direction and then all of a sudden the appearance of Mary stops him in his tracks. While I agree the article expounds a lot further, the film does abruptly end when they kiss. I did enjoy reading about the other similar films, though.

  3. Kate

    Trumpian Christian Churchgoer? Why would you say that? As if to say ALL Christians are Trump supporters…the two are not synonymous. Way to stereotype and label people, humans are multifaceted and not flat, unlike your writing.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Woah woah woah…
      I’m not just a church goer – I’m a full tilt Christian. And I am in no way, shape or form, a Trump supporter. Heck I’m seriously considering handing in my Republican party membership, I’m so disdainful of what Trump is doing to the Grand Old Party. In saying “Trumpian Churchgoer” I was identifying a very distinct Christian-subculture. A subculture that has circled the wagons and been thinking about money, safety, and security, above the widow, the orphan, and the impoverished. Now, if THAT is offensive, I’m ok with that. But I definitely was not saying all church goers were Trump fans. Because at the very least, I am not one. And apparently you aren’t either. So there, there’s two of us at least.


  4. Mary K

    Mary told Reverend Toller that she was the one who brought her husband to church, that in strange cities she sought out churches. This is one of those interesting culture observations that is echoed in Carol Howard Merritt’s book, “Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation.” Men don’t typically go to church unless their women (or in more liberal churches, their men) encourage them to attend.

    At the end of the movie, Mary calls Reverend Toller by his first name, Ernst, which made me think the endings could go either way: the sad one, being called home (welcomed by his intimate name, not his title) or the hopeful one of someone who has the spiritual depth to hold him grounded.

    My devotional is focused on Mother Theresa this month, who spent most of her life in despair. “There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful–a suffering continual–and yet not wanted by God–repulsed–empty–no faith–no love–no zeal. . . . Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place.” But then she accepted it. “I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”

    I will have to watch this movie again. That’s the power of great movie—how long the characters and the emotions remain with you long after the movie is done.

  5. Keane

    It feels that this was more of an attack on Christianity than an actual review . Your hatred for God and his people doesn’t surprise me. It’s just a case of total depravity we are all born with, which you must be born again. Anyways dude , chill . It was a Good movie

    • Taylor Holmes

      Did you even read this post? I mean, beyond the opening sentence. Which you misconstrued to my not liking the movie? It feels like an attack on Christianity? How? My hatred for God? WHAT?!?

      Let me say this again. I gave this movie a 4.5 out of 5. A near perfect movie in my mind. And theologically, it opened up really really interesting complications and interesting conversations. Why is it that its the Christians that are threatened by theological honesty? Just really fascinating.

      I’ll say this again – I am a Christ follower that is so fully in love with the creator of the universe that everything else is a distant second. But do I think the Church is perfect? Or even untouchable? Uh no. Have you heard of the Crusades? The Catholic church’s problems with pedophaelia? Yeah, absolutely not. But to watch someone struggle authentically – to attempt to truly grapple with the reality of our flawed existence in the face of walking on this spiritual journey called life – is a nigh on holy experience. YES! IT WAS A GOOD MOVIE! NO, IT WAS A GREAT MOVIE! Just unbelievable.

      Heck, I see myself in Ethan’s character. I’m torn. I am unshaken on my faith in a Perfect God. A God that has provided a way for me, for my forgiveness in spite of the fact that I screwed up today even. A lot. Regularly. I’m a mess. And yet He loves me. He has forgiven me. Wow. And I see this movie really wrangling with these deep, painful, and profound questions. Faith is complicated. And if you see it black and whites, you aren’t looking at the same world I’m looking at.

      Keane, yes. you are right. it was a good movie… which is what I said. My apologies if that wasn’t clear.

  6. Lisa

    Wow, what a powerful movie. So much so that I tossed it in the suggestion box before searching to see if it was here. I should have known better! I thought it was newer since I get a weekly watch list in my email from the NYT every weekend and this was listed for Prime. Anyway, that was so not the ending I expected and the levitation scene kind of jolts you out of the contemplation of the rest of the film but I think the mix of styles was definitely to the benefit of this film. I thought for sure he would blow up himself and the “evil doers” in the church. But then comes Mary and the story changes. This is not an attack on Christianity by any means. I think to be religious in this time, you have to parse out the things you believe in and then get rid of the rest. I know for myself, I grapple with my beliefs as well. I was raised in the Church receiving all my sacraments but there are also many things I take issue with. Toller took issue with his church being subsidized by a man also destroying the earth and when you mix that with despair, bad health and alcoholism, it could certainly be a deadly mix. He also took issue with the ideas of some of the youth group which were extreme right views such as the kid who was mad he couldn’t disparage Muslims. His feelings were not wrong about the environment and the youth but still extreme. I found Mary bringing him back from the brink at the end more powerful than him blowing up the church.

  7. Jérémie

    Good movie, but not the one you should watch if you want to take a break from the news and escape today’s world.
    One of the lessons of the movie is perhaps that we should not withdraw into ourself and let ourself get fixated on one problem. Basically, take a break from the news and escape today’s world. Enjoy the time with the ones you love.

    My main issue with the movie is that it is not clear what Toller wanted to accomplish with his actions. It seemed like an awful and very ineffective way to fight for his cause.
    Also the evolution of his relationship with Mary is very cliché.

    I liked the profoundness of some dialogues, which is a rare quality.
    I liked the use of purple (nebula, sky), which, I guess, is symbolic.


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