In First Reformed–the newest film from cerebral director, screenwriter, and film critic Paul Schrader–Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, an alcoholic Protestant minister experiencing a crisis of faith. After losing his only son to the war in Iraq and then his marriage in the aftermath, he wanders through the bleak wintry countryside of upstate New York as he waxes philosophically in lengthy voice-over narrations about the meaninglessness of life. It isn’t until he’s contacted by one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), whose husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), is becoming increasingly depressed and withdrawn due to his environmental activism, that the reverend is suddenly shaken out of his anomie with a newfound sense of purpose–or so we’re led to believe.
During a counseling session with Michael, the camera’s shot-reverse-shot sequence follows the ideological back and forth of the two men. Michael, whose wife is pregnant, ponders the ethics of bringing a child into a world that is doomed to the irreversible effects of climate change by as early as 2050. “Opportunistic diseases, anarchy, martial law… you will live to see this,” he desperately laments.
Rev. Toller tries to counter Michael’s vision of an apocalyptic future by appealing, unconvincingly, to a higher moral imperative of keeping faith alive in the face of despair. At the end of the exchange, in which Michael cites a long list of harrowing scientific data in support of his doomsday worldview, the reverend is left thoroughly disarmed and doubts whether he’s instilled any hope into Michael–or whether he has any faith left himself.
Toller’s simple church, built by Dutch settlers in the 1700s, is on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary. Its interior wood-paneled austerity sharply contrasts the neighboring mega-church pastored by the charismatic Joel Jeffers (portrayed by comedian Cedric the Entertainer), which simulcasts live-stream services and draws a large, youthful audience. The entrance to the mega-church, aptly named Abundant Life, is inscribed with a scripture from John 10:10, representing everything Michael and Reverend Toller find wrong with the excesses of our corrupt, profit-driven society: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
While the pace of the film can drag at times and its scenery and soundtrack are painfully bare, it nonetheless manages to offer a scathing critique of the present moment. In a telling scene in which Rev. Toller and Pastor Jeffers meet with a local businessman who heads an oil company responsible for the pollution of local waterways and who has agreed to underwrite the cost of the anniversary event, Toller poses the film’s central question: “Will God be able to forgive us?”
Although Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman takes Michael’s environmental fatalism as a sign he’s another “paranoid millennial narcissist,” Schrader seems to be asking the audience to take his concerns seriously. Is bringing a child into today’s world an ethical and environmentally responsible choice? The question is more literal than philosophical–and is one that I am not alone in thinking about and debating within my circle of friends. And what to do in the face of our inevitable self-destruction as a planet? Although the film ultimately forgoes eco-terrorism as a viable response to unfettered capitalism, it also stops short of an all-out condemnation of such radical tactics.
Schrader’s troubled clergyman at the center of First Reformed holds up a mirror to the darkness and moral bankruptcy of our world, without necessarily offering any solutions–as if such a thing even exists. The ending suggests–more ominously still–that we might all do well to retreat into the false comfort of intimate relationships so we can at least wait out the apocalypse in good company. Given the absurdity of our times, perhaps that’s as good a solution as any.
Film credits: Produced by Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, and Deepak Sikka; directed by Paul Schrader; screenplay by Paul Schrader; cinematography by Alexander Dynan; edited by Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.; production design by Grace Yun; starring Amanda Seyfried, Ethan Hawke, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston, and Phillip Ettinger. Color, 108 min. A Killer Films, Fibonacci Films, Arclight Films, and Omeira Studio Partners release.
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