First Reformed

 

            Toller (Ethan Hawke) sits at his desk at night, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, because no one comes near.  Or at least, not very many.  He has only a few parishioners at his Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York.  It's an historic building, and he dutifully gives tours to the occasional visitor, reciting when the organ (no longer operative) was installed, and who gave the ornate pulpit.  Yes, they have key chains and caps for sale as souvenirs, but t-shirts only in small; the rest are on order.

            Toller is a depressed loner who drinks alone at night.  He's decided to keep a diary, which he writes in longhand, where he's supposed to be chronicling his inmost thoughts, particularly about his difficulty in praying.  But he rambles, even to himself.  He avoid the topics he ought to be most concerned with---like his health.  He was in the military, married with a son, but when the boy grew up he enlisted, with Toller's encouragement, and six months into his first Iraq tour he was killed.  His wife left, and now Toller is alone with his grief and his regrets. 

            There's a huge independent church nearby, with the youth choir and the smooth-talking Pastor (Cedric the Entertainer), who's unafraid to cozy up to the big money in town, associated with the plant that produces paper.  They've also taken over the planning for the big 250th anniversary celebration of Toller's church, and Toller passively accepts their takeover, and even their Pastor's admonitions about drinking.  Toller has already rejected the advances of their youth choir director, after giving in once and later regretting it.  We want to like this guy, because he's so human, but he's also a mess, and headed for greater disaster.

            His only young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), begs Toller to come and talk to her husband, who, she says, is depressed.  Toller agrees to talk to him, and it turns out that the man is obsessed with the environment, and how we're so polluting the earth that we'll destroy it in a generation, which is why he doesn't want to bring children into the world.  The problem is that Mary is already pregnant, and she wants the baby.

            Director and writer Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) gives us a stark and depressing picture of contemporary Christianity.  Toller's quarters are so Spartan as to be monk-like.  Single bed, wooden table, wooden chair, wooden floors, plaster walls with paint peeling.  Toller wears his clerical collar every day, but has little to do during the week.  The smooth, slick Pastor of the megachurch dresses in a suit and tie every day, and presides over a humming, thriving operation that includes a cafeteria, but his desk, also, is clear of any clutter, and his library appears untouched, serving as decorative backdrop. 

            At this point in the narrative, the story could have taken several different turns, but the one Mr. Schrader chooses seems to obliterate his carefully-set-up characters.  It's a disconnect that is too disconcerting for the faith-based, and non-sensical to the secular.  Though the film contains the trappings of religion, including preachers quoting scripture to each other, what little sincerity is managed at the beginning soon disappears completely at the end.  It's a stark, sharp-edged story that might interest those who clamor for “something entirely different,” but will not appeal to a wide audience.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association