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‘First Reformed’

Being a pastor means that if a movie comes to the local theater about a pastor, I have to go see it.

Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” presents a pastor who has lost his way.

Ethan Hawke is Rev. Ernst Toller, a pastor at an old historic church in upstate New York. About to celebrate its 250th anniversary, the church is dying and has become what many called the “souvenir stand” because they sell trinkets, T-shirts and the like to those that visit.

But the dying church is only part of the problem. Toller has lost his faith. He drinks to excess and is in the throes of a grief that shadows his every step.

His backstory is that he comes from a military family. Toller once was a chaplain in the army, happily married with a son.

That son followed in the family footsteps, and Toller encourages him to go off and fight in Iraq.

The son is killed, and Toller’s marriage falls apart. He is left to live his days as a person who is dead within, pastoring a church that is on life support.

As the movie opens, we find Toller with pen in hand writing a journal of his experiences of the moment. He will keep the journal for a year and then burn its pages. The journal is the monologue we hear as the story unfolds.

Into his congregation comes a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried).

She is married to Michael (Philip Ettinger), a young man she feels Toller needs to counsel. Michael is just out of prison. He was placed there because of his radical stance on the environment.

When Toller talks to Michael, something comes alive within him. He is moved by the passion Michael has and finds a longing for that for himself.

The most shocking thing that comes out of the discussion is that Michael wants to have his child aborted because he does not feel it’s right to bring a child into the mess that the environment will be in the child’s lifetime.

The next day, Mary calls Toller to come by the house. She has found a suicide vest in the garage that Michael made.

Toller tells her he will get rid of it. The question is, “Is this vest a way for Michael to protest the killing of the environment by the killing of himself?”

There is more going on with Toller. He is urinating blood, and his health is declining. Some serious illness seems to be coming for him.

His supervisor, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) sees Toller as a “gloomy Gus” who needs something more in his life.

He encourages Toller to get more involved in the planning for the 250th anniversary of the church.

Sadly, I see in Toller an almost everyman when it comes to pastors. If you have put in many years of labor in the Lord’s vineyard, these days are more than challenging. We find ourselves in a land that we never knew.

Paul Schrader knows his subject matter. He was raised in the Reformed church – a strict Calvinist denomination where movies were forbidden.

It is into this world of a pastor who declares he cannot pray and seems to be just going through the motions of ministry that we see a vision of where the church is and where many of its pastoral leaders are.

Through fine acting, especially by Hawke, we witness a life crushed on the rocks of a reality that is pushing upon a man of God, who finds it hard to be either of God or even a man. This is a great movie.

MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violent images.

Writer and director: Paul Schrader

Cast: Ethan Hawke (Rev. Ernst Toller), Amanda Seyfried (Mary), Cedric the Entertainer (Pastor Jeffers), Philip Ettinger (Michael)

The movie’s website is here.

Michael Parnell

Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.