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.