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“First Reformed” – a movie review.

June 22, 2018

I first wrote this review on facebook. I’m reposting it here. Although it is mainly intended for Christians, others who are curious about the film, “First Reformed” might want to read this post. 

Attention Christians: I know many of you get excited every time a Christian movie shows up in theaters. There is one movie out right now which you might want to skip.

This film is called “First Reformed.” The title refers to the name of a church – First Reformed Church. There are a lot of churches out there called “First Reformed.”

The Reformed Church is a conservative, Protestant, Calvinist denomination. I’d rather not get into Calvinist theology right now, or else this post would be even longer than it is. Calvinist theology is not heavily discussed in the film, so don’t worry about it.

The talk about God and faith is more generically Christian – something Christians of pretty much every persuasion will be able to relate to, at least somewhat.

The word “first” just means the first Reformed church established in any particular town.

“First Reformed” is about a severely psychologically damaged pastor of a tiny church which almost no one attends. The pastor’s name is Reverend Ernst Toller, and he is sponsored by the minister of a nearby megachurch.

Rev. Toller deals with severe depression, various health problems, alcoholism, and other assorted issues. He is a terribly broken man.

He struggles in his conversations with the pastor of the much larger church. He tries hard to counsel a very troubled married couple. He deals with an ongoing and severe crisis of faith.

The film was written and directed by Paul Schrader, the writer of such intense Martin Scorsese-directed films “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Trust me, if you are serious about Christianity, and especially if you are a conservative Christian, I would strongly suggest you NOT watch “The Last Temptation of Christ.” You will find it to be astonishingly offensive.

“First Reformed” is mostly a slow, bleak and brooding film. There is no nudity or sex, nor tons of profanity. It is rated R for some VERY grisly images.

I suppose, if you have watched the Mel Gibson film, “The Passion of the Christ,” (some of you have seen it multiple times), then you obviously have a high tolerance for gore and scenes of brutal suffering. Maybe you won’t mind the horrific images in “First Reformed.”

Is the movie entirely without merit? No.

I’ve never been a fan of Ethan Hawke, the actor who plays the main character, Reverend Toller. In fact, Hawke for decades has been among my least favorite actors. I’ve never considered him to be very talented, and haven’t tended to like any films he’s been in. Hmm.. ok.. “Training Day,” another disturbing film, was pretty good.. but besides that.. no.

But in this film, Hawke is amazing. His is a truly excellent performance. I was quite impressed.

Also, there are some important issues brought up, including whether or not Christians should care about the environment, how to deal with a crisis of faith, how much influence should corporate interests and big money have in the running of a church, dealing with severe depression and loss, a troubled marriage.. lots of heavy topics are dealt with in this film.

How are the other actors? Amanda Seyfried, who I am not very familiar with, did well as one of the main characters, Mary, a troubled young pregnant woman who is married to a distraught man. Mary’s husband, named Michael, is played by an actor I’ve never heard of, named Philip Ettinger. He does well.

There’s a clinging woman who has fallen for the reverend. Her name is Esther. Esther is well-meaning, but she’s practically a stalker. She is played by an actress I’ve never heard of before, named Victoria Hill. Hill’s performance is rather good.

Yes, overall a solid cast. Even Cedric Kyles, a familiar comedy actor better known as Cedric the Entertainer, puts in a good performance. However, Cedric in a serious role was very distracting.

I kept thinking of him in his comedy roles – like the curmudgeon in “Barbershop,” and especially as one of the villains in an excellent comedy called “Be Cool.”

If I hadn’t seen Cedric in these comedic roles, and doing such a good job in them, I’d probably be able to take him more seriously in “First Reformed.”

Is there a redemptive message in this film? Yes, but to get there is a truly harrowing journey.

You’ve been warned.


Why did I watch this film? If you’ve been following my posts for awhile, you already know that I am troubled about spirituality, and stopped practicing Christianity back in the mid-1990’s – I had my own decades-long crisis of faith and finally had to stop. I still think about Christianity every day though.. can’t help it.

I would have stayed away from this film. I tend to avoid movies with one or more characters who are Christian (the Coen Brothers comedy, “Hail Caesar!” being an exception – it was great). But my dad wanted to see this film. He doesn’t drive, and so I took him to our local art house theater in Boise, called The Flix, and we watched what turned out to be a deeply disturbing movie.

Had I known what this movie would be like, I would have stayed home, and later gotten it for dad on DVD, or streamed it for him, and I would not have watched it.

But I wanted to help dad. I take him to movies several times a month, and he really wanted to see this one. He mainly wanted to see this movie because the writer/director was at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, the same time my dad and mom were there. They never met Paul Schrader, but he was well-known on campus – in charge of the school paper or something like that.

I had read that Schrader had written “Taxi Driver,” another disturbing film – but a classic, and one I could handle – I’ve seen it twice. Before I saw “First Reformed,” I did not know Schrader also had written “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which I watched once, and will never watch again.

I had hoped Schrader had mellowed during the decades that have passed since he wrote “Taxi Driver,” and that’s one reason I went.

I was wrong.

If you are not hoping for a light, inspiring Christian film, if you want to inflict emotional trauma on yourself, if you want to see some rather good acting, and can appreciate a dark and very thought-provoking film, then watch “First Reformed.” You will probably find some value in it. Even I did. But I still wish I had not seen it.

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