The Reverend Ernst Toller is the minister at First Reformed church, a small congregation in upstate New York. Mary, a young woman in the community, asks him to counsel her husband, who is struggling with her pregnancy. Michael is an environmental activist who is gripped by despair and hopelessness – he cannot imagine bringing a child into this world. Ernst (Ethan Hawke) takes him on, but it’s a tough case, and he relates more to the wife (Amanda Seyfried) than to the husband, who seems unreachable.
But the truth is, the Reverend is in no condition to counsel anyone. He’s messed up. And Michael’s question “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” messes him up even more. He defends god, but struggles privately. He takes up Michael’s obsession but continues to pollute his own body, as we watch his physical and mental health spiral downward.
The first half of the movie is a lot of Ernst feverishly and guiltily Googling, while also drinking himself to death. It’s is not overly compelling stuff. But it’s super jarring when there’s suddenly a scene that feels like a complete divergence from everything that came before it. It’s almost like director Paul Schrader is shaking things up to allow room for the spiritual. He reminds us that we’re not in charge. We may think we know what’s happening, but we don’t.
And that’s true. I was very caught off guard by the ending, and there’s not many stories in the world that I don’t see coming a mile away. I mean, we know this dude is having a breakdown in a major way. But things get extreme, and, um, open to interpretation? This movie is getting a lot of love from the critics, but it does boil down to: 90% boring, 2% omg wtf, and I guess 8% wrapping your head around Cedric the Entertainer’s casting. It’s one you’ll have to see for yourself.
Ethan Hawke is quite good, and he has to be because this character embodies so many conflicts – faith & science, love & fear, strength & despair, consecration & desecration. It’s hard to really put this one into words, which I think is kind of the point. Schrader tackles the inexpressible, he goes there, and treats spirituality with more seriousness than I’ve seen from a movie in a long, long time. It does not make for fun viewing. Can you hack that? Is that how you want to spend 108 minutes?