Ethan Hawke Leads One of the Best Films of the Year


FIRST REFORMED (2018) poster

In college, I suffered from an acute depression. I’m not sure if that would have been the official diagnosis, but it was certainly acute as in precise. While I’m not one to share all of the details on the Internet, I described my feelings then (and now) as a sense of overwhelming guilt. Guilt that I wasn’t good enough, guilt that I was irredeemable, guilt that my inner darkness couldn’t be quieted or reconciled or cured. In retrospect, I see that fear that controlled every action, every thought, every moment of paralysis was irrational and harsh and unfair. But when you’re in the throes of depression, you don’t see that.

I’m grateful for those who guided me through it—the fact that I can name that period of depression is a sign I’m in a better place. But once you’ve been to that place, the Pandora’s box your mind opened never shuts completely. The questions may not plague you like they used to, but you can’t forget you asked them. Why do I fail so often? What good is there in me? Can God ever forgive me?

When I watched Ethan Hawke’s small church pastor ask the same questions, I couldn’t help but think of those fears of imperfection. Sure, I was watching it on an iPad squeezed in the middle seat on an airplane and my ears were popping because I’d forgotten to pack gum (again), but no matter—my eyes misted up. These are my questions. These are my guilts. These are my prayers.

There’s room and reason for critical depictions of Christians on screen—I’ve been familiar with toxic individuals in the church, and I’ve inflicted my share of hurts. But for every Angela in The Office, I wish there were two more characters like Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke), whose sensitive heart weighs on him. The inciting incident for this story is a visit with a couple in his tiny congregation, one half conscientious (Amanda Seyfried), the other volatile (Philip Ettinger). The pregnant Mary (hey, that seems symbolic) comes to Toller when her husband Michael wants her to have an abortion. Michael sees our planet and society falling apart—how can it be moral to bring a child into this world? With the destruction we cause, Michael asks, can God ever forgive us? That question plagues Toller as he counsels the couple and wrestles with his own guilts, which he seems to collect more of each day.

This incident is not really the beginning of Toller’s story. Through wise storytelling in small moments and his journal voiceovers, we realize it’s only tapping into concerns already convicting him. This drama wastes no scene and covers no gray area in black or white. Hawke is a powerhouse from the quiet moments that escalate to an unbearable tension. The supporting cast creates people I’ve known as well, especially Cedric Antonio Kyles as the well-meaning but ill-prepared megachurch pastor mentoring him.

First Reformed has appeared on almost every Best of 2018 list ZekeFilm has published, but not just for its artistic merits. This film has moved our little group…

From Erik Yates (his #9): “A powerful work that will haunt you long after it is over…Where should faith intersect with our actions, and how far do we take those actions before we lose everything we believe in? How does our own brokenness keep us from staying true to those ideals that we should all adhere to?”

From Jim Tudor (his #1): “In its own honest rumination on various hypocrisies and greed of what may be our doomed world, First Reformed’s light of artistic truth elevates it to something nonetheless transcendent…a film that’s questions percolate long after one’s seen it.”

A church scene in FIRST REFORMED (2018)

From Sharon Autenrieth (her #1): “I can’t stop thinking about First Reformed. Paul Schrader’s somber film about a pastor (and a planet) in crisis touches on my deepest anxieties about the future and about the complicity of my own faith community in hastening our demise…Toller disintegrates emotionally not because he loses his faith, but because he finds it incompatible with the religious status quo.”

From Paul Hibbard (his #1): “It was the movie that made me write my church (which didn’t go over well and is probably now my old church)…If you are a non-believer or a frustrated Christian, watch this movie. It will tap into your anger and make you come more to terms with what is wrong with the modern day church.”

First Reformed was my #4. Somber and excruciating, the second half takes a turn I wouldn’t have chosen, but then again, it’s not my story. In fact, the more I think about it, this movie feels less like a fictional story at all and more like a true one. A character asking my questions and praying my prayers? One whose frustration doesn’t cause him to leave the church but still causes him despair? I hadn’t realized how much I craved seeing that. (If I could tell you how many times I’ve prayed, “Lord, I’m not mad at you, but I am mad at your people right now.”) So then again, while Toller’s life and mine don’t match in exact plot detail (thank goodness), I know his battle between hope and despair all too well, and I need to be reminded constantly of the grace that has redeemed my darkness. This is Toller’s story, and it is very much my story as well.