This might contain spoilers in the last few paragraphs.
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Director/writer Paul Schrader’s latest film tackles some big issues—theological and environmental—and provides Ethan Hawke with perhaps his greatest role. His Pastor Ernst Toller is as burnt out as Nicolas Cage’s Frank Pierce, an ambulance paramedic in Bringing Out the Dead, the latter one of my favorite Christ-figure films, for which Schrader wrote the script. Schrader is as well known for his scripting as his directing, having written the script of four of Martin Scorcese’s films—Taxi Driver; Raging Bull; The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead. In the case of his latest film, because Pastor Toller enters his daily reflections into a diary, the film most of us will think of is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.
The film opens with the camera focusing on a handsome, wooden church painted white. After the camera slowly moves toward it for a seemingly long time, we are taken inside and introduced to its pastor. A Dutch Reformed Church soon to celebrate its 250 year, the building is beautiful but simple inside and out. The minister’s life style is even simpler, indeed, the more we see of him, “stark” seems a more appropriate adjective. The parsonage’s floors are bare, and the furniture consists of just a table, and in many rooms only a chair. His sermons are delivered in a flat voice to the tiny congregation of a half-dozen souls. During the week he is more tour guide than minister, showing visitors around the historical site and explaining how the church had been a station of the Underground Railroad. Our wonder as to how the tiny congregation could keep going is soon answered when Pastor Toller meets Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) of Abundant Life Ministries, who seems to be his mentor or confident. A wealthy member of the mega church has been supporting the smaller church because of its historical significance. Although their theologies and views of the church are different, the two pastors seem to get along well.
What amounts to action, or the pastor’s emergence from his spiritual lethargy, in this interior-looking film begins when his pregnant parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him if he will counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who has been asking her to get an abortion. Michael is such a radical environmentalist that he despairs of bringing a child into what he believes is a doomed world.
The pastor visits their home the next day, and during the interchange with Michael we learn more about Pastor Toller’s past as well. He too has been in the grip of despair because as a military chaplain he had coaxed his son to join the army, whereupon the boy had been killed as soon as deployed to Iraq. Toller’s grieving wife had left him because of this, and so his own faith hangs by a thread due to his feeling of guilt and loneliness.
As Michael describes the deadly pollution destroying the earth, he asks, “Will God forgive us for destroying His creation?” Despite his argument that the world is in trouble, but it’s not dying; that hope remains that environmentalists will win the battle, the pastor is unable to turn Michael around. In fact, when he Googles to find information on the environment he himself changes, his conscience aroused so that he preaches an environmental sermon in which he asks Michael’s question.
Sadly, the sermon “Will God Forgive Us?” comes too late for Michael. Mary discovers in the garage an explosive vest that Michael has made. Pastor Toller takes custody of the vest, telling her not to tell anyone about it until he can meet with Michael a second time the next morning. Michael over the phone postpones their second meeting, asking the pastor to come to the park in the afternoon. When Toller shows up there, he comes upon Michael’s body, his head a bloody mess from his shotgun.
The somber memorial service is held, per Michael’s wishes, at a toxic harbor site littered with debris and the rusted hull of a tugboat. This ravaged plot of land had been abandoned by the very member of Abundant Life Ministries who is bankrolling the upcoming 250th anniversary reconsecration of First Reformed Church, Ed Balq (Michael Gaston). His large oil company has a long history of polluting a site and then walking away from it. You can imagine how the luncheon that Pastor Jeffers arranges for the three of them to wind up preparations for the celebration will go. Ed Balq, seeing no disconnect between his alleged faith and the environmental destruction caused by his company, expects both pastors to raise no questions about his business. He is certain about the compliant Jeffers, but Toller is an enigma.
During one of their sessions in Jeffers office, the prosperity gospel preacher tells his fellow pastor, “You’re always in the Garden (of Gethsemane). Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden all the time. He went to the market place, the temple, the mount…” Of course, we know better than Jeffers that Pastor Toller has good reasons for languishing in Gethsemane. Like the priest in Diary of a Country Priest, he is dealing with stomach cancer, as well as the loss of his family.
Toller uses his bottle of whiskey as much as prayer to assuage the pain. In his self-imposed isolation he rebuffs the attempts of others to reach out to him, especially the woman with whom he has had a brief affair, Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director at Abundant Life. In response to the last of her several enquiries about his health, he orders her never to touch him. It is Mary, as devastated as he, who begins the process of bringing him out of his shell. There is a bizarre, magical realism scene in which he lies atop her and they—well, you have to see this for yourself.
Mary figures in the highly suspenseful concluding sequence also. As he gets ready for the big celebration, it looks like despair has turned into righteous anger and a desire for vengeance.
First Reformed Church is packed on the day of its reconsecration. Before donning his robe, Rev. Toller winds barbed wire around his torso like a Medieval flagellant. He then takes out the suicide vest he had stored away for Mary and puts it on, and the robe over it. During this process the camera cuts back and forth to the church sanctuary where Rev. Jeffers, business tycoon Ed Balq, Esther and a host of others wait, wondering why the host pastor is late and where is he.
Finally, Rev. Jeffers gets up and marches to the nearby parsonage in search of his friend. There is no response to his knocks on the door. Inside, with his blood staining his robe, Toller’s faith struggles against his despair and anger. The outcome makes for an ambiguous ending, but not the pat one a so-called faith film would give us.
Writer/director Paul Schrader, himself the son of a strict Calvinist minister, has journeyed from faith to disbelief, and so personally knows what Toller is going through. At one point he has the minister say, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time: hope and despair.” Until he had spoken with Michael, Toller had been able to do this, but when he researches “the Environment” on the Internet and looks at the ravaged landscape close to his church, despair begins to weigh heavier than hope. He starts becoming unhinged, much like another character in the first script that Schrader wrote, Taxi Driver, Travis Bickel who declares, “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
Bickel, like Toller, a veteran, is angry about both physical and moral pollution that have made New York City so ugly and dangerous in the 70s. The taxi driver says,” Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks. I’m workin’ long hours now, six in the afternoon to six in the morning… All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets…” Perhaps these thoughts are like what is going through Pastor Toller’s deranged mind when he looks into a mirror while strapping on the suicide vest preparatory to joining the crowd gathered a few paces away in the church.
Fortunately, there is also the other Schrader character mentioned earlier, one in which faith and hope emerge as stronger than his despair, paramedic Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead. Another burnt out case, he finds himself rejuvenated through his relationship with an ex-junkie also named Mary. There are times when we are unable to help ourselves, times when we become candidates for the miracle of grace. At first when the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” accompanied Toller’s donning of the suicide vest I thought it was intended as irony, or black humor, recalling again the film that Schrader has claimed, and certainly shows here, has been a great influence on his film making, Diary of a Country Priest. What transpires in the last minute of First Reformed convinces me otherwise–the song is, after all, a hymn of grace, Check out the last line of Bresson’s film, and I am certain that you will understand what Schrader’s film also is all about.
Note: Here is a thought I didn’t know how to work into the review, but which I think important to consider. Some might see and discuss the film as holding up two forms of ministry or views of the gospel—that of Christ’s call to take up the cross on behalf of a suffering world and that of the Prosperity Gospel that is centered on self-aggrandizement. Rev. Jeffers is depicted as leader of a large successful church beholden to a corrupt businessman. He is blind to his compartmentalizing of faith and ethics but sincerely concerned for the welfare of Toller. The latter, his social conscience aroused by the challenging question of his dead parishioner, seeks to act out God’s will, but will it be based on anger and vengeance or upon love and grace?
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July issue of Visual Parables.