Pride is sneaky. Just when you think you’ve conquered it, you get cocky and it knocks you out. First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver and director of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters), is a tale about the seductiveness of pride and its pathway to despair.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a pastor at First Reformed, a small historic church that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Now it’s little more than a tourist attraction kept afloat by a nearby mega-church. His unfilling job is to simply keep the lights on and preach to a small congregation of a few locals and tourists every Sunday. Unsure of what he lacks, he has decided to use a journal to both record and assist in his quest to find hope and acceptance in himself.
Toller: I have decided to keep a journal to set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day. I will keep this diary for one year, and at the end of that time, it will be destroyed.
This opening line of the film may seem harmless enough when we first hear it, but as events unfold, we witness Toller flirt with pride and despair so dangerous, it could lead to his downfall.
His current life is simple, uneventful, and dull until Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of the few local parishioners, approaches him to ask him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary is pregnant and Michael is convinced that the earth’s environment is irreversibly doomed and that giving life to a baby would just add more misery to the planet. Mankind, he feels, has wasted and destroyed the earth.
Michael: Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?
Toller: Who can know the mind of God?
Hawke plays Toller brilliantly, as understated with touches of rage, allowing us to witness his struggle to find both certainty and peace with the mysteries of his life. We watch his extreme discomfort at being a guide for anyone as he tries to bring comfort and hope to Michael. Attempting to help him see that there is good in the world, Toller also seeks to show him the atrocity he would be committing should Mary agree to do what he asks.
Toller: The despair of bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.
He knows this first hand. With military service a family tradition, Toller encouraged his son to enlist and serve in Iraq only to lose him after just six months. His pride in both his son, his family tradition, and his country has turned into despair. Now alone after his wife has left, he’s been trying, without success, to find new meaning in a life of service.
But as he looks into Michael’s research he discovers that things are much darker for the earth than he knew. In addition, he learns that the man responsible for much of the damage locally is none other than the benefactor to First Reformed’s upcoming 250th-anniversary celebration, local industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston). Slowly his discomfort turns to anger then to rage, but finally, he has found the meaning he’s been looking for and he takes on this new role with vigor.
When he begins questioning the actions and motives of nearly everyone in his circle, his self-righteous and angry challenges land not only squarely on Balq and Toller’s boss, Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Antonio Kyles), but he also spits contempt for a woman who truly cares for him and loves him, his friend Esther (Victoria Hill).
Toller: I despise you! I despise what you bring out in me! You are a stumbling block to me!” he shouts at her.
It’s lines like this where Schrader allows Toller to display the rage he has been keeping at bay. At times both emotional and austere, the script is full of questions and doubts with a pacing that’s passionate and deliberate without feeling too slow. Complementing the austerity and giving the outbursts more impact is Alexander Dynan’s stark cinematography. FIlled with empty spaces and washed-out colors, his pictures help us understand, and even feel, some of the despair that permeates Toller’s world. But it’s Hawke’s performance as Toller is that holds our attention and plants the suspense. He is mesmerizing, exhibiting such strength in his doubts and weaknesses that he can shift from seemingly simple and charming to terrifying in a matter of moments.
“Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love,” he wrote in his 1961 book, New Seeds of Contemplation. “It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.”
Even though he’s very familiar with Merton’s teachings on this and knows better, Toller can’t help but allow himself to fall into this trap.
“Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are,” says Toller, paraphrasing Merton.
As Toller writes in his journal throughout the film, we can both hear and feel the pride swelling in him. Rather than patiently listening for God, as Merton advises, Toller becomes so disgusted by the destruction, shallow pageantry, and hypocrisy of the mega-church, Abundant Life, he can no longer sit still, and it’s Toller’s struggle between letting his ego take charge and practicing love that is the central conflict of this film and provides the most amazing and revealing moments throughout.
Adding to the fantastic depth of the film is the character of Jeffers and his portrayal by Kyles. As the head pastor at Abundant Life, Jeffers is fascinating. Kyles displays him as an earnest, yet realist pastor, so we’re never too sure just what his religious beliefs are. At times he seems to really care about the struggle that Toller is going through and tries to help him. But other times his frustration with the pastor is front and center, as Toller stands to get in the way of Jeffers’s carefully orchestrated ceremony and the accompanying donation from Balq. For Jeffers, it seems it’s a bit of a numbers game. He has set up his church to reach the maximum number of people, offering a prosperity gospel that attracts the wealthy with the idea that faith and obedience to God bring health, wealth, and good fortune. Of course, the converse, the idea that if one is wealthy and powerful then God must be happy with you, is used by Balq as an excuse for exploitation. Instead of a divine right of kings, it’s a divine right of the one-percent.
It’s been said that wisdom is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas side by side. The idea that God loves and provides for us yet also grants us the power to destroy ourselves is a difficult one for anyone to come to terms with, as is the reality that love conquers all even though evil sometimes wins. First Reformed is an exercise in watching one character struggle with the search for this wisdom, inflicting great damage and horror upon himself and others in the process. There are no easy answers here and the film doesn’t pretend there are. It simply documents the struggle, ending at a point that gives us an idea of the direction the characters will take but without guarantees.
Yet, it is also a hopeful movie, for if we have faith, hope, and love then perhaps we can see that our love isn’t meant to be reserved for those we agree with and deem worthy, but should be shared with all. Anything less is pride, and pride is one of the most destructive forces on earth.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
-1 Corinthians 13:13