First Reformed is a 2017 American drama film written and directed by Paul Schrader. It stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric the Entertainer (credited as Cedric Kyles), and follows a Protestant minister faced with questions of faith and morality while serving as pastor of a dwindling historical church. Elements of the plot and Hawke's character are inspired by the novel The Diary of a Country Priest, by French writer Georges Bernanos, adapted into a 1951 French-language film of the same name.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Paul Schrader|
|Written by||Paul Schrader|
|Edited by||Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.|
|Box office||$3.8 million|
First Reformed was screened at the 74th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2017, and was released in the United States on May 18, 2018, by A24. The film was acclaimed by critics, who gave specific praise to Hawke's performance and Schrader's screenplay and direction. The film was chosen by both the National Board of Review and American Film Institute as one of the Top 10 Films of 2018. At the Independent Spirit Awards, the film received nominations for Best Film, Best Male Lead (Hawke), Best Director and Best Screenplay, while Schrader's screenplay was also nominated for an Academy Award, the first of his career.
Reverend Ernst Toller is the pastor of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, who is struggling through a crisis of faith. The film opens with him writing down his thoughts in a journal for a year, after which he intends to destroy it. He leads a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed Church which was once a stop on the Underground Railroad; it faces dwindling attendance under Toller's leadership, which has taken the church in a new direction and away from its historical focus on Calvinist theology and today it serves mostly as a tourist attraction. In trying to manage his own life issues, such as his alcoholism, Toller seeks a deeper experience through reading Roman Catholic writers (G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton) and mystical books (The Cloud of Unknowing). This new spiritual direction leads him to seek support from a nearby evangelical megachurch, Abundant Life, located in Albany, which owns First Reformed.
Toller, a former military chaplain, is also struggling with the death of his son Joseph, who was killed in the Iraq War; Toller had encouraged him to enlist. He meets Mary, who is seeking counseling for her radical-environmentalist husband, Michael. He further challenges Toller's beliefs: Michael explains that he wants Mary to get an abortion, because he does not want to bring a child into a world that will be rendered almost uninhabitable by climate change.
Mary finds a suicide vest belonging to her husband in their garage. Toller takes it, promising to counsel Michael about it. Mary and Toller discuss going to the police, but Toller feels it would dramatically worsen Michael's state. Just before their next appointment, Michael sends Toller a text message asking to meet in a local park. Toller arrives to find Michael dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. In accordance with Michael's will and testament, a service is held at a local toxic-waste dump, where his ashes are scattered. Meanwhile, plans are underway to celebrate the sestercentennial of First Reformed with a service attended by the mayor, governor, and a notable industrialist, Edward Balq, a key financial backer of Abundant Life and an owner of a polluting industry. At a meeting in a diner, Toller argues with Balq over climate change after Balq finds Toller honoring Michael's will a political act: Balq dismisses it as "complicated", but Toller sees it as a straightforward matter of Christian stewardship.
Experiencing various physical pains, Toller reluctantly sees a doctor, who suspects stomach cancer and schedules tests. Using Michael's laptop, which he took after his suicide to prevent the police discovering his radicalism and making trouble for Mary, Toller researches Michael's concerns further, including the materials which inspired him to make the explosive vest. One night, Mary visits Toller in the parsonage of the church, and he plays Michael's role in a nonsexual rite of physical intimacy that the couple used to perform.
Toller begs Mary not to attend the anniversary service. Preparing for his role in the ceremony, he puts on the explosive vest, and arms it. When he sees Mary entering for the ceremony, he removes the vest and instead wraps himself in barbed wire under his alb. Toller pours a glass full of drain cleaner and is about to drink it when Mary interrupts him. The two embrace, kissing passionately before the film abruptly cuts to black.
- Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller, leader of a tiny historical church who is going through several personal crises
- Amanda Seyfried as Mary Mensana, a pregnant widow and parishioner at First Reformed
- Cedric Kyles as Pastor Joel Jeffers, megachurch pastor at the evangelical Abundant Life church
- Victoria Hill as Esther, a worker at Abundant Life who is in love with Toller
- Philip Ettinger as Michael Mensana, a radical environmentalist and anti-natalist whose suicide emboldens Toller
- Michael Gaston as Edward Balq, local industrialist and financier of Abundant Life
- Bill Hoag as John Elder, church organist at First Reformed
First Reformed was filmed over the course of 20 days around Brooklyn and Queens, New York, including the building and grounds of the Zion Episcopal Church in Douglaston, Queens. Schrader said he was inspired by Paweł Pawlikowski's film Ida to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, saying "It...drives the vertical lines, so you get more of the human body in the frame."
In September 2017, A24 acquired distribution rights to the film. It was theatrically released in the United States on May 18, 2018. It has also screened in a number of film festivals, among them the New Zealand International Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival.
First Reformed grossed $100,270 from four theaters in its opening weekend, an average of $25,068 per venue, one of the best of Schrader's career. As of February 2019 the film has earned $3.8 million worldwide; its production budget was $3.5 million.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 93% based on 209 reviews, and an average rating of 8.3/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Brought to life by delicate work from writer-director Paul Schrader and elevated by a standout performance by Ethan Hawke, First Reformed takes a sensitive and suspenseful look at weighty themes." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 85 out of 100, based on 47 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian said, "the sheer Bunyanesque severity of this film is as refreshing as a glass of ice-cold water ... a passionately focused film but not a masterpiece" and noted that Ethan Hawke's character's name was an allusion to the German playwright of the same name.
The film received nominations for four awards at the Independent Spirit Awards: Best Film, Best Male Lead for Hawke, and Best Director and Best Screenplay for Schrader. At the Critics' Choice Movie Awards, the film received two nominations for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Schrader and Hawke were awarded Best Screenplay and Best Actor respectively at the Gotham Awards. Both the National Board of Review and American Film Institute listed it as one of the Top 10 Films of 2018, with the former's awarding Schrader the award for Best Original Screenplay. Schrader's screenplay also was nominated for an Academy Award.
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