Film review

(Warning: contains spoilers and difficult subject matter)

‘A life without despair is a life without hope.’ The Reverend Ernst Toller believes some men are called by God because of their ‘loneliness; their all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of things.’ At odds with this sense of his vocation, he finds himself taking care of the historical First Reformed church in Snowbridge New York, also known as ‘the souvenir shop.’ With its tiny congregation, it is sustained by Abundant Life, a charismatic megachurch.

He is surprised one Sunday when a worshipper asks him for help. Mary is twenty weeks pregnant and deeply concerned about her activist husband Michael. A passionate environmentalist, Michael has just been released from prison. Mary asks Toller to speak with him.

Michael is utterly consumed by thoughts of imminent environmental collapse, the end of human life on earth and the suffering that will have to be endured before it all comes to a close. He feels unable to bring a child into this world, knowing what he does. Michael evidently respects Toller because he knows Toller’s story. Toller draws on his pain at the death of his son, who was killed in Iraq, and the loss of his wife, who held him responsible; he presses Michael to consider his child’s life apart from his own despair, and not as something for him to sanction. How Michael receives this counsel is not clear. They agree to meet again.

In the interim Mary again contacts Toller, this time with the disturbing discovery of a suicide vest among Michael’s possessions. He won’t go to the police, but takes the vest and hopes that he can still get through to Michael. When he arrives for their meeting, he finds Michael beyond help. He carries out the funeral instructions in Michael’s suicide note faithfully and continues to support Mary.

The film shows us Ernst Toller in unflinching detail. Scenes from his public life and ministry are interspersed with graphic depictions of his failing health, which he’s ignoring, and his drinking, which ‘doesn’t help.’ The scenes in which Toller narrates his own story are largely focussed on his diary, in which he sets out to treat himself without mercy for a year, before destroying it. They form a clear and powerful statement of the film’s key themes, but the beauty of the writing ensures that they don’t detract from the more subtle forms of storytelling: the compelling central performance by Ethan Hawke, a rich set of minor characters, the setting. 

We see how Michael’s death brings Toller into conflict with the Abundant Life administration, which is currently busying itself with preparations for the re-consecration of First Reformed, two hundred and fifty years after its foundation. The celebration just happens to be bankrolled by seedy businessman Ed Balq, whose company has a track record of despoiling nature and blocking legislation designed to protect it. We see a different side to the personable Reverend Joel Jeffers when Toller challenges him about the church’s lack of leadership on environmental issues, and his own church’s ties with Balq’s company. He turns his back on Toller, and tells him to start living in the real world. As Toller gets ready for the re-consecration, he puts on Michael’s suicide vest.

There can be no easy resolution of the issues raised in the film, but Mary’s surprising appearance at the conclusion typifies the creative tension between hope and despair, which is at the heart of First Reformed, and which, in Toller’s words ‘is life itself.’

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