Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Cinematographer: Alexander Dynan
Producer: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, and Frank Murray
by Jon Cvack
It was while listening to Ethan Hawke talk about this film on NPR’s Fresh Air that I realized how much I love his interviews. He was discussing a couple of his latest films - his directorial debut Blaze (2018) about the life of musician Ben Foley and this film. Throughout the interview, you realize how articulate, charming, and intelligent the guy is; serving as the type of actor that’s grounded and understands his privileged position; determined to make good art whenever possible, even if that means doing a few better-paid movies along the way. Days after the interview, Reddit posted a link to Colbert’s Late Show, in which the host let Hawke tell a gripping six minute story as he explained the best acting advice he received from Mark Rylance regarding playing Hamlet opposite two of Hawke’s idols. It’s getting more into podcasts that I realize how fast interviews are on television; in which some rule I once heard said to avoid letting any one person speak for more than five or seven seconds (a principle embodied by CNN and Fox News). Hawke possesses that magical ability to connect with others; making it feel as though he’s talking straight to you. Like any great artist, he creates that peculiar sense of kindred spirit.
Similar in-depth and detail as Hawke’s own views on art and the world, Schrader’s film contains an extraordinary amount of nuance. While serving the simple plot of a priest at ethical odds with an environmental extremist, Schrader's universe uses the narrative as a way to explore a range of ideas on the convergence of business, politics, and religion, and the world in which that convergence exists.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) oversees the First Reformed Church located in a small town in upstate New York. The opening tosses you straight into its Academy Ratio (1.37:1) which given all modern widescreen 16:9 TVs, has become a jarring look; especially in a theater where the wings of the screen contain tall black rectangles. There’s a long dolly into the church and in we go, following Toller as he entertains tourists and visitors. First Reformed has been around for nearly 250 years, serving as part of the underground railroad, now owned by the Abundant Life megachurch. Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) provides Toller a significant amount of autonomy in exchange for keeping up with the office and community politics. With the church’s 250th anniversary approaching, interest has spread statewide and he wants to ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible.
Similar in style to Travis Bickle’s voice over, though far less profane and bleak, Toller has decided to keep a journal for a single year which he will destroy on the anniversary. Toller is a former military chaplain who after supporting his son’s decision to go to enlist during the Iraq War, received notice that he had been killed in action after only six months. His wife and him were unable to repair their relationship and divorced and he later joined First Reformed.
He’s visited by one of his parishioners, the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who wants him to visit her radical environmentalist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who doesn’t believe Mary should have the baby.
Global warming is a difficult subject; an issue that has somehow become politicized when it is about continuing the world for all life by at least trying to fix the problem. Nevertheless, as with any contentious issue, there are the tropes around those politics and there’s been no shortage of disparaging tree huggers or the way environmentally conscious discuss the issues. So many know the basic facts of global warming that there’s a risk of sounding like parody when attempting to have a conversation between two characters who discuss the problem.
Schrader masters the scene, somehow finding the balance between Michael providing empirical data without it sounding trite or obvious. We hear an articulate and strong argument for why he doesn’t want to bring a baby into the world: climate change's effects are starting to strike and there’s no evidence to support that it’s getting better. It will get worse and Americans will feel the effects firsthand and in much more significant ways. In the end, the most Hawke can say is that it’s better to allow for something to exist than to not exist; to possibly fight the problem and make it better for subsequent generations.
Days later, Mary calls Toller to her house, showing him a bomb vest that Michael created. Toller tells her to keep it quiet to avoid drawing unnecessary attention. Hawke’s mastery is making this sound like an entirely reasonable and understandable request. Days later, Michael texts Toller to meet him in a nearby park; to which he shows up, discovering Michael had blown his head off with a shotgun. Returning to Mary, they discover the last will in testament; asking for his ashes to be scattered in a toxic waste dump. Toller honors the request and invites some choir singers from Abundant Life who sing a pro-environmental Neil Young song, attracting the attention of some political bloggers.
This gets back to one of Abundant Life’s chief financiers Edward Balq (Michael Gaston) who, during a meeting about the anniversary, scolds Toller for making Michael’s death into a political statement. This sends Toller further down the rabbit hole of his own environmental investigation, which like Travis Bickle’s observations of humanity, begins to quite literally rot his body as he soon learns that his difficulty going to the bathroom is stomach cancer.
The church anniversary approaches, and Toller pieces together how the church, business, and politics all intersect, as Balq and Jeffers join the mayor and governor to honor a historical church that helped to fight against the vicious foe of bondage. Now there’s another, worldwide existential problem, and the same individuals are doing nothing about it. Fully empathizing with Michael and foregoing all his prior advice, Toller dresses up in the bomb vest and aims to blow up the church; until he sees Mary arrives and opts for some Drano instead. She stops him before he drinks and the two embrace and it cuts to black - either the bomb went off, or perhaps the poison took effect, or it’s some grand declaration on the power of love negating all else (which I highly doubt).
There’s a deep cynicism in the film which I think a lot of those who even casually follow up on climate change news can understand. The problem is getting worse. The debate should be between how bad it is or how far past the point of no return we are, how to solve it, and what we can do in the short term. In the era of Trump, the subject is no longer discussed; reserved for the occasional, otherwise Earth-shattering news that 15,000 scientists have penned a letter warning of “dire warning to humanity” about the effects of global warming. Although I wrote this over eighteen months ago, Australia has over 12 million acres of forest burning. Two million people have lost their homes and their citizens are calling it Hell on Earth. And still we keep going, taking one step forward as we’re driven dozens of steps back. Recent films like Chasing Corral (2017) and Chasing Ice (2012) demonstrate firsthand how rapidly the problem is accelerating and still there’s no consensus. There’s profound selfishness at play, in which most just hope to make the remainder of their own lives last, by buying that house and car and all the consumption that provides them short term joy. Even the most ardent upper-class liberals have their mansions and BMW’s out here in Los Angeles. Everyone is willing to sacrifice, but only up to a point.
Schrader’s film embodies this idea - showing a man so torn by these revelations that, with maybe months to live, finds no other meaning than to destroy himself and take one less body from the world. I struggle with how I look at those who deny global warming; as it’s starting to have a direct impact on human lives and so many are willing to give up nothing. We cannot destroy life to preserve it and yet life will be destroyed by ignoring it. First Reformed demonstrates the struggle. In the end, if Toller sacrificed himself and Mary, Schrader allows us to wonder the impossible - was it worth it? I want to say no, but the film denies simple judgment.
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