By Richmond B. Adams.
Schrader presents an alarming cultural fragmentation in which American enemies are no longer German Nazis, Soviet bureaucrats, foreign terrorists…. Americans have come to view perhaps even their next door neighbors as adversaries to the death….”
Upon the release of Paul’s Schrader’s First Reformed during the early summer of 2018, I knew that I wanted to write about it. My desire was not simply due to memories of Ethan Hawke’s performance in Dead Poet’s Society (1989) or a decade later as a somewhat more mature adaptation of the same character in Training Day (2001). Rather, Schrader’s portrayal of a pastor in moral crisis is both vocational and, as it happens, personal. Prior to entering graduate school, I served for eleven years as a clergyperson in a mainline American Protestant denomination where I continue both to hold ordained standing and to which I have presently returned. It is subsequently not an abstraction to say that the reality of moral quandaries, even if not those faced by the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), were present for me on an almost daily basis. To confront these dilemmas, I came to realize, is at the heart of the pastoral task. As such, they became much more often about the embrace of grimacing uncertainty than any remote effort which, somewhat literally and almost without exception, stands all too tall in the pulpit of righteous certitude.
The film begins with Reverend Toller, a former Army Chaplain, serving as the Pastor of a virtually dead, but historic church in Snowbridge, New York, who one evening chooses to hand inscribe his thoughts into a journal. By introducing his principal character through such a manner, Schrader references Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) where a young priest (Paul Laydu) chooses the path of recording impressions about his vocational life among the people in the remote village of Ambricourt. Bresson’s influence of what Schrader calls the “transcendental style … provid[es] a bridge between the [Christian Reformed Church]” of his childhood “and the profane cinema [he] loved,” is well established and the central emphasis behind the making of First Reformed (Ribera 190; Schrader 2). By adapting Bresson’s use of the “everyday stylization of elimination” that “strips action of its significance,” Schrader allows Toller’s character to be expressed, at least initially, in a much more ambiguous manner than did, as one clergy counterpart, the inwardly self-loathing, but also still functioning, Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache) of Antonia Bird’s Priest (1994; Schrader 89).
Toller does manage to recite the weekly liturgy, but in such a manner that provides no sense of God’s redemptive presence to his all-too-few congregants. During the six days between services, Toller further drowns his despair with alcoholism so needful that he pours whiskey over his breakfast cereal (First Reformed). The principal activity each week he seems to have is by leading various tours that outline the church’s past glories as a station for Underground Railroad (Ribera 196-197; First Reformed). Such scenes of the pastor as performer only express more of Toller’s emotional and vocational surrender beyond what he listlessly demonstrates in the liturgy (and, no doubt, his sermons) every Sunday. Schrader’s focus on already damaged messengers trying to proclaim the redemptive grace of God without feeling it themselves continues not only the dilemma of Bresson’s 1951 film, but works such as John Ford’s The Fugitive (1947), and Ingmar Bergmann’s Winter Light (1963). Even more recent works such as Bird’s Priest and the Hughes’ Brothers’ The Book of Eli (2010) convey that notable sense of pastoral uncertainty.
As he makes journal entries over what he hopes will be a single year, Toller wishes his words to serve “as a form of prayer” (First Reformed). By inscribing his reflections rather than praying in more conventionally understood means, Reverend Toller further suggests the emptiness he feels when he seeks the divine presence (Ribera 196). Through a continual search for what he has evidently lost, Toller begins an effort to reframe those same traditions within faith that have guided several generations of his family until his son’s death in the Iraq War (197; First Reformed). At the same time, such notions of surrender form the context of the relationship between Toller and his clergy counterpart, financial sponsor, and employment supervisor, the Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles). Serving as the Senior Pastor of the Abundant Life Church, Jeffers leads a non-denominational congregation bursting with activity, members, and a large presence throughout the Snowbridge area. These periodic meetings with Jeffers, whose basic decency gave Toller the opportunity to make a living after he left the Army Chaplaincy, frame the film as a larger exploration of how twenty-first Americans no longer simply question, but virtually ignore those institutions that shaped the lives of their parents and grandparents after World War II (Patterson 8). As First Reformed demonstrates the physical and ecclesiological differences between these two congregations and their two Pastors, however much they are economically linked, it also portrays the escalating reality of contemptuous distrust expressed throughout American life in the aftermath of 9-11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, and (at this writing) the COVID-19 pandemic. By doing so, Schrader presents an alarming cultural fragmentation in which American enemies are no longer German Nazis, Soviet bureaucrats, foreign terrorists, or, as films such as Captain Marvel (2019) or Avengers: Endgame (2019) suggest, aliens from outer space. Rather, as these two churches imply, Americans have come to view perhaps even their next door neighbors as adversaries to the death for reasons that may not extend past their choice of network on which they see the evening news (First Reformed).
Within such an atmosphere, Toller is asked by a young parishioner Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried) to visit her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) as soon as he might possibly be able to do so. Coming the next day, Toller discovers that Michael had been recently been granted early release from Canadian prison as a consequence related to his involvement with the Green Planet Movement, an organization trying to stop the escalating consequences of climate change (First Reformed). Michael also makes clear that his release was largely due to Mary’s pregnancy. Michael’s moral quandary, as he explains to Toller, centers upon the prospect of bringing a child into the world that soon will be facing the “severe, irreversible impacts” of climate destruction (First Reformed). Michael asks, given that his child will encounter life ruled by the consequences of worldwide chaos, if abortion has become the best available moral option (First Reformed).
Toller answers Michael’s question by redirecting it onto himself. Simultaneously, and in the words he later wrote to describe their encounter, Toller notes that it was “exhilarating” (First Reformed). Such “exhilaration,” however, does not relate to Michael’s dilemma, but instead to Toller’s rekindled feeling of usefulness. By telling Michael that “[c]ourage is the solution to despair” and that we as humans must choose despite the uncertainties we encounter, Toller, it seems, to offer Michael a way beyond his guilt. More to the point, however, Toller shifts the conversation onto his own moral and vocational emptiness (First Reformed). Whether or not he realizes such projection, Toller still exemplifies the almost impossible moral dilemma that comes to face every pastor. In the present instance, Toller’s lurching toward renewed self-fulfillment becomes a way by which he can use Michael’s concerns as little more than a prop to deal with his own feelings of inadequacy (First Reformed). Through these inadequacies, and by focusing not on Michael, but instead himself, Toller responds neither to his calling as a Pastor to a person nor to his call as God’s prophetic voice among a world almost literally descending into hell. Even as he later tussles with God (Toller references Jacob’s “wrestling” with the “man” in Genesis 32:22-32), Toller simply continues to express more about his almost rediscovered usefulness than about Michael as a parishioner or the issues that drive him soon to suicide (First Reformed). As a Pastor with more than a decade of experience, Toller cannot help but realize the reality of Michael’s despair, even if he did almost nothing to focus upon it. At the same time, by not confronting the ever-increasing red swaths across Michael’s computer screen, Toller, a prophet sworn to God, will only hasten the climate hell expanding right before his eyes (First Reformed).
Michael’s suicide shortly after asking for a meeting in a local park only accentuates Toller’s crisis. As he tries to assist Mary and what the immediate future might mean for her ongoing pregnancy, which Toller does in an almost perfunctory offering of the pastoral role, a medical exam uncovers that he has, like Bresson’s Father in Diary of a Country Priest, a malignant tumor in his stomach. All of these anxieties occur while his congregation’s 250th re-consecration service of worship is moving toward its fruition (First Reformed). Such intertwining stress, as well as the coming presence of local and state dignitaries who will be attending the re-consecration service, would, quite naturally, exhaust any Pastor. Schrader attempts to weave these competing strands into a fraught whole, but does not adequately show how Toller decides to deal with them through the avoidance he expresses through becoming active in the climate change crusade (First Reformed).
It also seems that Toller’s desire to become such a vocal evangelist arises from nearly the same depth of guilt over Michael’s suicide as that over the death of his son in Iraq. Toller soon begins to speak from his new-found activism by confronting Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), an industrialist who also happens to be a significant donor to both Abundant Life Church and a sponsor of the upcoming re-consecration service. Toller even does so in the embarrassed presence of Jeffers, his economic and pastoral benefactor (First Reformed). Toller expresses his claim that “somebody has to do something” in a subsequent meeting with Jeffers, a fellow Pastor also called of God to embody the same prophetic tradition. Jeffers, conversely, seems to abdicate his divine summons by protecting the financial stability of his own institution by indicating that he will be sending Toller away for treatment, so that he might find his way beyond “always being in [Gethsemane],” once the older church building has been sufficiently acknowledged by the principalities and powers of New York State (First Reformed; Mark 14:32-50; Romans 8:38).
By transferring such zealotry onto Toller as a Pastor, however, First Reformed loses the moral ambiguities that gave power to its initial sequences. Schrader’s film does not, as Tatiana Prokova argues, use Toller’s prophetic transformation as a virtual epistle on human irresponsibility “to tackle the problem of environmental and human degradation [and subsequently] to comment on a number of profound questions” (171). Rather, the film’s first half quite meaningfully explores how Toller attempts and fails to overcome his own emptiness. As it transfers Toller’s focus onto the narrative of climate change, however, the film’s concluding portions dilute the nature of Toller’s dilemma that Michael’s question initially raises for him (First Reformed). Both Prokova and Robert Ribera, via their respective articles in the forthcoming ReFocus: The Films of Paul Schrader (Eds. Michelle E. Moore and Brian Brems) miss the manner in which Toller uses his activism to avoid a confrontation with the central issue that any pastor will come to face (171-187; 189-206). After Michael’s death, if Toller chooses to center his ministry on Mary’s grief and her coming life as a single mother, he will relinquish the prophetic call of the faith that he is called to proclaim. At the same time, as the film moves toward a portrayal of the obscene acquiescence of God’s Church to corporate America, it loses any trace of Michael as a singular creation made in God’s image (First Reformed; Gen. 1:26). Once Michael commits suicide, Schrader never allows Toller to confront the question of whom he will serve at a given moment. Schrader’s film, at the last, does not answer, as Ribera’s title suggests, the query upon whose arms a pastor finally leans (Ribera 189). By not allowing Toller to wrestle with the question, First Reformed falls short of a more comprehensive moral examination (Gen. 32:22-32). Such an effort, of course, might explore these ambiguities with more than just a pastoral lens. Through a focus on all aspects of American life, and particularly given the stark reality of formerly presumed norms which seem to be careening toward an unimaginable abyss, such an examination necessarily remains all the more urgent.
Richmond B. Adams, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar living and serving in Pawnee, Oklahoma.
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Prorokova, Tatiana. “’Every Act of Preservation is an Act of Creation’: Paul Schrader’s Eco-Theology in First Reformed.” ReFocus: The Films of Paul Schrader. Edinburgh UP, 2020. 171-187.
Ribera, Robert. “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms: Love and Silence in First Reformed.” ReFocus: The Films of Paul Schrader. Edinburgh UP, 2020. 187-206.
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Training Day. Dir. Antoine Fuqua. Perf. Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, and Scott Glenn. Warner Bros., 2001.
Winter Light. Dir. Ingmar Bergmann. Perf. Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, and Max von Sydow. Svensk, 1963.