The protagonist of the film is Ernst Toler (Ethan Hawke), a pastor in a historically important church, which bears the same name as the film. The church is celebrating 250 years of existence, and the priest’s role in the celebration has been reduced to presenting speakers, and one of them will be Ed Balk, a local industrialist. The change in his life occurs when he is approached in the church by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant woman who is worried about her husband Michael. Namely, Michael is a radical fighter for environmental protection and does not want to bring a child into a world that is being destroyed by pollution…
Toler does not have too many obligations in a poorly attended church, but he rarely leaves. We learn that he is a former military man, whose son died in Iraq, and his marriage did not last. He is of the opinion that he is incapable of love, avoids contact with people and ignores serious signs of health problems. He writes a diary in which he discusses his life and work, and in that way we find out that he is not at peace with himself either – that notebook is a real treasure trove of his thoughts, feelings and experiences. The diary will be written for a year, after which it will be destroyed.
The main driving force of the film First Reformed is the cognitive mismatch of the main character, and next to it there are also the form of the film, as well as its rich ideas. This is a story about a man who is committed to the faith and who experiences a crisis of his beliefs, but at the same time this is not a story about religion. According to one of the characters in the film, wisdom is the ability to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time, and Toler’s modern presentation of religion has become a burden – if he was ever committed to his religious beliefs, that devotion left him long ago.
Toler’s thoughts are totally different in relation to the way he presents himself to the world. We learn that he has not been able to pray for a long time and he hopes that writing a diary will help him in that. Maybe writing a diary is a prayer in itself – an attempt at prayer is still some form of the same. Toler always has consoling words for church visitors and his colleagues, he quotes the Bible and readily states his theological views, leaving the impression of a man who has self-confidence and who knows the answers. However, during the night in his sparsely furnished house, he finds solace in written words and alcohol, which help him erase doubt and physical pain.
Our protagonist is hesitant whether to indulge in a disease that will inevitably take his life. Should he continue to act as if he knows the answers and live in lies? Or to try to find the right answers, no matter how scary, if any? The author does not provide answers to these questions unless you consider that the absence of an answer is an answer in itself. The focus is on the protagonist, but First Reformed is, among other things, research on the role of faith in everyday life and how a person joins extremism. Schrader does not intend to deal with theology, speeches or psycho-analysis, but presents his hero as he is, and leaves us to speculate about his further destiny, which is a riddle that cannot be answered.
Ethan Hawke in the lead role demonstrated acting skills that some didn’t even think he had. He very convincingly presented every step that his character made in his existential pain, until he finally became a shell of a man, tormented by a mixture of religious and environmental fanaticism. After the initial impression of a fulfilled man, the rest of the film follows how Toler is sinking more and more into despair for himself, for his faith and for the world as a whole. He neither loves nor hates the world, but he is aware that it will give him the end that he wants and fears at the same time.