Although utilizing a church setting and speaking of environmentalism, First Reformed is actually about neither of those things.
Reverend Ernst Toller is the pastor at First Reformed Church, a sparsely attended historical church that mostly gets by on tourist interest. Toller, cognizant of the church’s dwindling importance and consequently his own, is facing a crisis of faith, so much so that he feels he can no longer pray. Then Mary, one of his congregants, asks him to counsel her husband, recently released from jail and struggling with despair over the future of the Earth. An environmental activist with some inclinations toward extremism, he believes it immoral to bring a child into the world, and wants Mary to get an abortion.
For starters, First Reformed is an aesthetically commanding film. Schrader shoots the film in the transcendental film tradition, opting to do without a score or camera movement, and changing between cameras somewhat sparingly. This leaves the audience mostly without cues as to what is important and what emotions are meant to be evoked at different points. It also has the benefit of making the film feel much more real and lived-in, like you’re just watching real-life events transpire. This is especially the case when Toller visits Mary and Michael’s house, one of the few living room sets I’ve seen in recent years that actually looks like an ordinary person’s house.
The character development itself presented more of a challenge for me in my viewing of the film. Toller becomes increasingly sympathetic to his ideas. He researches climate change, speaks up about it (within a theological framework) to other pastors, and continues to spend more time around Mary. The ultimate decline of Toller’s mental stability, mirrored by the decline of his physical health, felt somewhat unexplained to me. Why did he feel drawn to Michael’s particular brand of extremism? Was he already sympathetic to his worldview? These are questions that the film doesn’t seem interested in answering, which seemed to me at first a detriment to the plausibility of the film’s events.
But something should be mentioned here. As much as the film uses religious and environmental elements, they aren’t really the point of the film. It would be quite easy for conservative Christians to grow upset at the portrayal of the church here (it’s implied that the megachurch Toller’s congregation is supported by is being unduly influenced by a large energy company). It would also be tempting for more progressive Christians to use the film as a rallying cry – pleas for Christians to consider environmentalism as a natural outgrowth of being stewards of God’s Earth are scattered throughout. But both sides would be missing the point. The religious and environmental elements are merely the canvas for Shrader to talk about the real theme of the film – despair. That’s what Toller first identifies as Michael’s key problem. In his journal, he gives a quote by Thomas Merton: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.”
What isn’t originally clear in the film, and may not be until its closing moments, is the importance of Mary to the story. She is technically a minor character, but as Toller becomes more and more like Michael, she becomes increasingly important. It’s her agency that brings about the closest thing the film has to redemption, and brings meaning to one of Toller’s wiser statements to Michael – that the answer to despair is not reason, but courage. And as Toller’s decline mimics Michael’s- as he becomes Michael in many ways – it’s Mary who becomes something of the film’s savior.
Taken this way, it’s quite a moving film, and the way it shows bits and pieces of Mary’s emotional journey feels very intentional. The religious and environmental elements will win or lose political points with many, but I think those are very tertiary elements. This film is not so much about those particulars, but is very much about despair, trauma, and in the case of Mary, second chances.