What is God’s place on a dying earth?
This is essentially the question at the core of First Reformed. After being confronted head-on with the perilous threat climate change poses to our planet, a reverend struggles to keep his faith in a God that is nowhere to be seen. But as First Reformed well knows, God means more to people than the old man who pears down on us from the heavens up high. Rather it is an embodiment of us. Our fears our hopes. Our savageness our reason. Our faults and our salvation. Whether or not we always care to admit it, the religious beliefs and philosophies we call our own are all directly a product of our, very personal, response to these simple internal battles.
Directed and written by Paul Schrader, First Reformed gives this pitched tug-of-war between hope and despair a scarily relevant 21st-century spin in one of the best and most urgent films of the year. Schrader, who also made Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, is no stranger to stories chronicling the downhill spiral of a man, and in First Reformed, he again turns to what has worked in the past with the tale of Reverend Ernst Tuller’s (Ethan Hawke) fall down the zealotic rabbit hole. It is a career performance from Hawke and one that has somehow wormed its way into the Oscar conversation nearly a year after its release because he dares to be emotionally compromised rather than just carry himself with a dreary sadness and punch-drunk anger. Contradiction and complication create the essence of First Reformed and Hawke’s ability to juggle disparate emotions provides the catalyzing ingredient.
A former military chaplain and family man, Tuller is now the minister of the ancient First Reform Church in upstate New York. A small and scarcely attended Dutch reform church that is presently little more than a tourist attraction, it is owned and operated by the near-bye Abundant Life Megachurch. Tuller appears on the surface as a man of faith and great intelligence, and indeed he is, but we soon glimpse flashes of his tragic past that have left him drowning in an unmitigated sorry. Isolated, sick, and downing handles of whiskey every chance he gets, Tuller has reached a tipping point of sorts. And then, after answering the pleas of a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), everything changes. The women, purposely named Mary, is pregnant with her husband Michael’s (Philip Ettinger) baby and Michael is none too pleased. A radical environmentalist, Michael fears for the world the baby will grow up in — a world swallowed hole by global warming and human negligence. And as much as Tuller tries to convince Michael otherwise, some of that fear rubs off on him and soon Tuller begins to spiral.
The term “radicalization” is thrown around freely in the news and throughout popular culture, yet normally its scope and context are frustratingly limited. Radicalization means brown people, Muslims, Isis, and maybe the occasional Nazi. It is an unjustified insanity with little basis in reality –an inexplicable cancer of naivety and anger. First Reformed’s genius lies in how it shows just how wrong this concept is. Tuller’s increasing extremism is just the flip side of the coin from the neglect shown by the corrupt Abundant Life Megachurch and its leader Jeffers (played with surprisingly resonant empathy by Cedric the Entertainer). None of the characters throughout the film are driven solely by ideology, but rather a mix personal factors that lead to the destruction of their world or their bodies just as often as they lead to their felicity and sense of beauty.
The duality of man is not a revolutionary concept, yet rarely has it been explored in film with such adept grace and relevance as it is in First Reformed. The balancing of hope and despair and action and caution will determine the survival of our society just as it has over the entirety of human history.
We better be paying attention.