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Movie Review: First Reformed
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Movie Review: First Reformed

See the Film March 3, 2019

Goldie Eder, LICSW, BCD

In First Reformed, a 2017 film directed by Paul Schrader, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) encounters a couple in his small parish, pregnant with their first child, who embodies both hope and despair. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is worried about her environmental activist husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), and asks Reverend Toller to talk with him. Toller does so and immediately picks up on Michael’s suicidal potential. Michael wants Mary to get an abortion, expressing that it feels morally wrong to bring a child into the world knowing that the environmental destruction already wrought will mean a fatally changed world for his trusting child by the time she is his age. 

Toller engages Michael in a philosophical and spiritual discussion, and Michael agrees to talk with the reverend the next day. It appears that Toller has made a kind of therapeutic alliance with Michael. Toller examines what we might think of as counter-transference in his journal at night, and this reveals a broken man who is suffering his own crisis of faith. We see the manifestations of his physical illness in his austere living quarters in the First Reformed Church. Michael asks Toller how he survived the death of his own son in the war, and Toller tells Michael that “courage is the solution to despair. We can’t know what the future will bring—we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously.” Toller comes at this from a theological angle, but is this not the paradox what we as therapists must hold for ourselves and help our patients to bear?  

Toller’s questions, doubts, and actions become more extreme as his church prepares for the 250th anniversary celebration, bankrolled by an energy executive and staged by the mega-church of which First Reformed is now a part. Michael asks, “Can God forgive us?” The question haunts Toller and he increasingly feels in order to preserve his own sense of integrity, that he must pose the dilemmas raised by Michael to his congregation. Though Toller’s colleagues, Reverend Jeffers of Abundant Life and Esther the choirmaster, try to reach out to him, he gets lost in his own illness of the body and crisis of the spirit.   The second to last scene is excruciatingly painful (warning: it could be triggering to people not wanting to see violent self-injury on screen), and the ending will be comforting for some and disturbing to others.  

I chose this somewhat dismal film because I believe it taps into anxieties that extend even more broadly than what millennials are commonly perceived to be feeling in our world today. We consume information about the predicted consequences of environmental crises and climate change, and yet we do not exactly know how to change the ways we live. And so our patients seek some kind of answer or comfort in being witnessed and known by us.
Reverend Toller is a difficult but gripping study of a spiritual leader and healer having to stay open and authentically receptive in order to make emotional contact with his congregants, even at the peril of his own mental and spiritual health. The same can be said for social workers and other psychotherapists, which is why I think this film is so timely for this series. 

Spring Film Festival Speakers:

Our discussant for First Reformed will be Christopher O’Rourke, LICSW. Christopher currently teaches at Smith College School for Social Work on topics of spirituality and severe mental illness. He is also the Director of Social Work Practicum Training at the Danielson Institute at Boston University (a psychotherapy clinic with a spiritual orientation).  



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