Toller: Well, somebody has to do something!
Forty-six year old Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) is the pastor at the historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York. Toller is dealing with a midlife crisis, struggling with the death of his son in war, a divorce, and failing health. These issues in Toller's life become more pointed when a new pregnant congregant, Mary (Seyfried), asks him to speak to her husband Michael, who Toller will learn is an environmentalist concerned about bringing another human life into what he already sees as a world doomed because of man's role in climate change.
The film premiered in August 2017 at the Venice Film Festival, and was officially released on May 18, 2018, distributed by A24. It opened to universal critical acclaim, with particular praise for Hawke's performance, and has been called Schrader's best work in years.
Tropes in this work include:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Esther is this to Toller, who resents her neediness and prying nature.
- The Alcoholic: Toller.
- Ambiguous Ending: Is Toller's reunion with Mary a real hope of salvation for him, or is he simply hallucinating her arrival as he dies? Schrader himself has confirmed that both answers are equally valid.
- Arc Words: "Will God forgive us?"
- Big Damn Kiss: Played with. At the end, Mary interrupts Toller's suicide attempt and the two run into each other's arms and kiss passionately while the camera swoops around them. On the other hand, a hymn is playing and the whole thing could just be a Dying Dream.
- Chekhov's Gun: If you're wondering why the camera spends so long watching Toller pour Drano down his toilet, it's because he'll almost use it to poison himself later. Similarly, a length of barbed wire that Toller pulls off the church grounds ends up playing a role in the climax.
- Church of Saint Genericus: While First Reformed's name and other characteristics suggest membership in the Reformed Church in America or some related denomination, it seems to be kept afloat solely as a pet project of a nearby megachurch's pastor, whose denominational affiliation (if he has one) is unclear. Toller himself seems less inspired by traditional Reformed theology than by the Catholic Thomas Merton.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Ed Balq, a local industrialist who donates to virtuous causes but whose company is a major polluter.
- Crapsack World: How both Michael and Reverend Toller see the state of the world, having to deal with fears of climate change, political division and extremism, and the loss of loved ones.
- Crisis of Faith: Toller, as a result of having lost his son in war, his subsequent divorce, and his failing health.
- Death Seeker: Toller neglects his obvious health problems throughout the film, but this trope reaches its peak by the climax. Initially, he plans to use an explosive vest to destroy his own church for its 250th anniversary service. He puts an end to this upon seeing Mary at the ceremony, and tries to kill himself by drinking drain cleaner. However, Mary arrives and stops him at the last second.
- Driven to Suicide: Michael shoots himself in the park after asking Reverend Toller to meet him there.
- Due to the Dead: An unusual funeral takes place in which the deceased's remains are put to rest at a toxic-waste site while the choir sings Neil Young's "Who's Gonna Stand Up (And Save the Earth)." When Balq complains about how political it is, Toller protests that he was following the deceased's explicit instructions.
- Eco-Terrorist: Michael is flirting with this early in the movie, having done time in jail for an unspecified act of non-violent protest; then Mary discovers that he has a suicide-bomb vest in the garage. Michael dies before going through with it, but then Toller almost uses the vest himself before backing out at the last minute.
- Fan Disservice: Good news for Ethan Hawke fans: he does take his shirt off. Bad news: he promptly wraps his torso in barbed wire and gets covered in blood.
- Friend to All Children: Toller is good with kids and appears to be quite popular with most of the youth group, likely because he has no problem with speaking to them like adults. It's implied that this is one of the main reasons Abundant Life keeps him around. He gets worse with them over time as he struggles to hide his growing despair.
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Mary first approaches Toller because her husband wants her to get an abortion, and she doesn't. Unlike many examples of this trope, the issue isn't personal responsibility or even the humanity of the fetus, but whether there's hope for the future of the world.
- Green Aesop: Though the film doesn't have an "aesop" in terms of telling people exactly how to respond to pollution and climate change, it doesn't pull any punches in pointing out how terrifying the future could be and criticizing industrialists for contributing the most to ecological devastation.
- Meaningful Name: Ernst Toller shares his name with a German playwright and political radical of the last century. And of course, there's that pregnant woman named Mary...
- Michael's last name "Mensana" can also be seen as a highbrow pun on either "manzana," Spanish for apple (as in the fruit from the Biblical tree of knowledge), or the beginning of the Latin phrase "Mens sana in corpore sano," literally "a healthy mind in a healthy body," suggesting Michael's despair at the state of the world is the beginning of Toller's fall from grace or at least a rational response that contrasts against Toller's faith.
- No Ending: Mary enters Toller's home just as he is about to poison himself. The two embrace and kiss passionately. The camera swoops around them — and the film abruptly cuts to black.
- Outliving One's Offspring: Toller's only child was killed fighting in the Middle East, which especially haunts him because he urged him to sign up.
- Sinister Minister: Toller is one of the more complicated examples, as the film casts him in an immensely sympathetic light. That doesn't change the fact that, were it not for Mary attending the reconfirmation, he would have committed an eco-terrorist Suicide Attack on his own church that would have killed or injured dozens of people if successful.
- Spiritual Successor: Paul Schrader has cited both Winter Light and Diary of a Country Priest as direct influences on First Reformed. In the case of the former, both protagonists struggle with crises of faith as a result of existential threats to humanity and fail to console parishioners who are so concerned about the threats that they blow their brains out. Also, it shares numerous structural similarities to Diary of a Country Priest, which also features extensive voiceover through the protagonist's entries in his diary.
- Schrader also considers First Reformed his successor to Taxi Driver and a bookend to his career. Aside from the obvious plot parallels, both films are structured entirely around the subjectivity of their protagonists, forcing the audience to identify with them even as they start to lose their grip on reality.
- Suicide Attack: Toller's goal at the climax. He calls it off, however.
- Toxic, Inc.: Balq's company is portrayed this way.
- Trailers Always Lie: The trailer would lead you to think First Reformed is about a priest trying to prevent one of his parishioners from carrying out a suicide bombing. That is the case, but only for the first half of the movie before Toller considers carrying out the attack himself.
- Unreliable Narrator: Toller's Diary Framing Device starts out as unflinchingly honest, with him writing a stream of consciousness he refuses to edit that more or less accurately reflects the events happening on screen. As he begins to fall deeper into despair, Toller writes that he woke up feeling better while he spirals into drink, hallucinates flying around the world with Mary, and plans a Suicide Attack on First Reformed with Michael's vest.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Balq donates substantially to charitable causes, keeps Abundant Life and First Reformed operating, makes a big deal of his plant's efforts towards sustainability, and is Nice to the Waiter when he buys the "organic" apple pie at the local Greasy Spoon. He's also totally fine with his company's substantial contribution to climate change and other environmental disasters, flexes his influence to prevent the church from making political statements against big business, and blames Toller for Michael's suicide.
- Vomit Discretion Shot: Toller is seen leaning over a toilet getting sick, which is one of many instances of Foreshadowing for his failing health.