by Daniel Nguyen
There are a number of “faith films” that are released every year, but rarely do any of them have the weight that considers what it means to be devoted like First Reformed does. Having penned Scorsese-directed classics such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, writer and director Paul Schrader returns to contrast dark obsession with righteous devotion in his latest film.
First Reformed centers around the character Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain who now works as the minister of First Reformed Church in the town of Snowbridge, New York. His position is more symbolic than functional, as the small church is a historic site under the management of the Abundant Life—a local megachurch. Toller’s ministry is not necessarily integral to the larger community that Abundant Life serves, and, as a result, he feels rather aimless in his ministry, performing empty actions before a sparse congregation.
As Toller goes through the motions of his ministerial duties, his humdrum lifestyle is interrupted by Michael, a young man beset by thoughts of the ecological crisis; Michael is contemplating violent means to combat environmental waste. He admits to Toller that he is manifesting dark thoughts, and that he has come, at the prompting of his wife, to seek the minister’s counsel.
Upon their first meeting, Michael cites various sources and studies concerning sea levels, gas emissions, mass corporate pollution, and the like. As Toller patiently tries to understand Michael’s passionate cause, Michael asks Toller a question: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to His world?”
Toller responds, saying: “I don’t know. Who can know the mind of God?” Attempting to lift Michael from these obsessions, Toller continues by saying, “Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring–we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously.” Toller isn’t completely wrong in his answer. There are many instances when the Bible seems to contradict itself, but these contradictions don’t seem to bother the millions of Christians who worship in spite of them, even blindly at times. This often forces the believer to trust that God is in control.
Toller acknowledges God’s complexity, displaying an attitude that demands a heightened trust in God that can withstand doubts. However, Toller begins to question what he really believes when he journals about Michael’s issues. He writes: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one certitude rather than admit [that] God is more creative than we are.” It’s here that we see Toller beginning to ponder Michael’s radical ideas, trying to reconcile the “two contradictory truths.”
Toller’s meeting with Michael encapsulates the thematic question of the film: How can an individual’s devotion be betrayed as he tries to make sense of contradictory truths? The answer: by quiet, mortal arrogance that slowly grows into a doubting monster that challenges what is eternal. Toller’s passive humility, displayed earlier in the film, begins to fade as he tries to look for answers to Michael’s questions, particularly as he slowly seeks to comprehend or “know the mind of God.”
Michael’s wife, Mary, soon finds an explosive suicide-vest that Michael was apparently working on. She alerts Toller of her discovery, and he hides it in the parsonage to deter Michael from committing a horrific act. However, soon afterwards, Michael kills himself in an isolated park. Interpreting Michael’s death as an act of martyrdom, Toller prompts himself to research the ecological crisis on his own.
Toller is also haunted by thoughts of his dead son. During his time as a military chaplain, Toller encouraged his son, Joseph, to enlist. Following his father’s advice, Joseph signed up for the military but was soon killed in battle. Toller feels responsible for the tragedy, especially because his wife left him as a result. The angst and loneliness he feels throughout the film leads him to drink again, slowly destroying his body.
To console Mary over Michael’s death, Toller begins to visit her regularly. He soon develops a connection with her. She is pregnant with Michael’s baby, which leaves many needs for Toller to meet, including spiritual counseling and, even, grocery shopping. He becomes a surrogate for Michael and fills many of Mary’s emotional vacancies that Michael could not in his manic state.
But thoughts of the ecological crisis continue to plague Toller as he immerses himself in Michael’s collection of works and studies. He soon figures out that BALQ, a large corporation that consistently disregards its pollution emissions levels, is also a major donor to Abundant Life. In a sense, Toller’s salary is provided by BALQ, which formally limits what kind of political views he should endorse. This is evident when BALQ’s CEO denounces Toller for organizing Michael’s politically-charged funeral. In one tense scene, the executive dismisses Toller as he tries to raise questions about the company’s activities.
Toller slowly abandons his own advice to Michael, especially the concept that “reason provides no answers.” He develops a proud obsession: to contend with “the mind of God.” Toller wrestles with the silence of God. He struggles to understand why God would allow the earth to be choked by pollution. Why won’t God intervene?
He eventually thinks he “understands God’s plight.” He reasons that since Christ died to redeem mankind from godless eternity, then he, Toller himself, must also die to spare creation from man’s waste. The opportunity for this comes upon the occasion of Abundant Life’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of First Reformed Church. In attendance are important church members and donors, including the owners and executives of BALQ. Driven by a pulsating zeal, Toller intends to don Michael’s suicide vest and set it off during the ceremony.
In a remarkable scene late in the film, Toller hides the vest under his ceremonial robes, preparing to administer “God’s judgment” on those harming the earth. However, before he can go through with it, Mary shows up at the ceremony and Toller is forced to rethink his actions. The film then ends in an astonishing gesture as Toller and Mary embrace one another and passionately kiss.
Among other ideas, the film illustrates the way a man’s capacity for devotion can easily tilt toward obsession when devotion sways away from God. In the midst of his mortal arrogance, Toller’s devotion is twisted into an obsession that defies his convictions. Forgetting God’s power, he was destined to fail in understanding the mind of God; instead of becoming a savior, his obsession turned him into the wretch that he sought to redeem.
Toller is similar to the other protagonists Schrader has written over the course of his career. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle fantasizes about vigilantism and waging justice on a corrupt city; in Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta seeks to maintain his importance by obsessing over his boxing championships and his wife’s attention; and in The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is disturbed by different methods to save mankind while repressing his lustful desires. How accurately does this consistent pattern of characters paint a portrait of Schrader and his obsessions?
First Reformed is definitely Schrader’s most personal film. Schrader grew up in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church in Michigan and did not see a film until he attended college. After completing his theological studies, he went on to study film at UCLA, which he noted was the beginning of his obsession with film. This obsession was a very defiant act against his strict upbringing and is mirrored by Toller’s doubt that leads to his own obsession.
Schrader has said that he had to learn to manage the obsession, “I have a religious background and a theological education,” he said. “And so I was interested in religious movies as a young critic, but I was only interested intellectually. I wasn’t interested viscerally. Viscerally, I was interested in sex and violence and profanity and outrageousness—what we’re all interested in in the movies.” Schrader acknowledges that he, like most moviegoers, has some kind of interest in the impure, particularly on the screen. But as he’s grown older, Schrader has retained his “intellectual” interest in movies while keeping the “visceral” in check.
The stories that Schrader writes are deep character studies into what his own devotions and obsessions are. His upbringing would condemn his curiosity and fascination of cinema as a deviation from the straight and narrow way, but he didn’t necessarily follow the broad way to Hollywood that most take. Appropriately, the characters Bickle, LaMotta, Christ, and Toller can all be interpreted as alternate versions of Schrader if he did not retain his disciplined “intellectual interest” in movies. Instead of corrupting him, Schrader’s film career, especially his work on First Reformed, serves as a diary of Schrader’s devotion and obsession, and it keeps him humble whenever he takes a seat at the pew on Sundays.