FilmScene — opens Friday, June 15 at 12 p.m.
“Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
That is the question which Michael, the radical environmental activist, poses to a disturbed pastor at the beginning of First Reformed. It is the question that haunts this small, brutally beautiful film, the latest from writer-director Paul Schrader, the cinema legend who penned the scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and the director behind American Gigolo, Blue Collar and Auto Focus. It is a question posed several times throughout the film, but it would pop into your mind even if it went unuttered. The poisoned oceans, dilapidated storefronts, oil-soaked coastlines, decimated forests and broken-down humans paraded in front of you for almost two hours beg the question: can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?
First Reformed takes its name from and revolves around a small, colonial-era Protestant church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. Like the deindustrialized Upstate New York town around it, it is in a state of decay. The toilets leak, the organ doesn’t work, the paint is chipping off the wood, the pews sit empty on Sunday, save a few graying souls. It is appropriate then that the church is helmed by a dead man walking, Reverend Toller, played by Ethan Hawke. Toller, an ex-military chaplain, is slowly being consumed by stomach cancer. But it is clear he has already suffered a spiritual death, brought on by the loss of his son, killed in Iraq, “a war with no moral justification” as he puts it.
Toller’s life is given renewed purpose, for good and for ill, when he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant young parishioner. Mary is concerned for the well-being of her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), morbidly depressed after serving a prison sentence for environmental activism in Canada, unsure of whether he wants to bring a child into what he considers to be a dying planet. Rising sea levels, droughts, extreme storms, climate refugees, resource wars. “Our social system can’t survive that many shocks,” he tells Toller, “How can you justify bringing a child into this world?” Michael’s answer to that question lies in the suicide vest he has stored in his garage, found by his wife and shown to a shocked Toller.
“Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” may be the question Toller and Michael keep asking themselves, but it is not necessarily the question at the heart of First Reformed. That would be the much more material question posed by a then-little-known Russian revolutionary more than 100 years ago. What is to be done? More specifically, what is to be done in a world with a species slowly killing itself with pollutants whilst confining ever-increasing wealth and power to a shrinking elite? A world with no social or political movement powerful enough to challenge that order? What is to be done in a world without hope, without a future?
The characters in First Reformed are all searching for answers to those questions, whether they know it or not, and their search is made riveting to watch by the quietly fantastic performances of the central cast. Ethan Hawke is brilliant as Toller, clearly communicating a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Hawke makes it seem as if every small movement, whether it be the twitch of the face or just walking across the room, is only accomplished in incredible pain. Seyfried gives a sparsely elegant performance for a sparsely elegant film. Her Mary embodies what little hope First Reformed has to offer, her common decency and lack of self-pity are an all-too-rare combination Seyfried manages to pull off.
But the most thematically interesting performance is Cedric Kyles’ (better known by his comedic stage name Cedric the Entertainer) turn as Pastor Jeffers, the head of Abundant Life Church, the megachurch which owns Toller’s church. Jeffers is Toller’s foil in every respect, his gregariousness standing in stark contrast to Toller’s intense introspection. Jeffers attempts to counsel a trouble Toller: “Every pastor needs a pastor,” he remarks at one point. Jeffers is a good man with a good heart, and Kyles’ obvious comedic talents are put to good use here, imbuing Jeffers with a charm that makes it easy to see his appeal to a large congregation.
But Jeffers is compromised, ethically and morally. He wears $1,000 suits, flashy jewelry and drives an oversized SUV while preaching the gospels of a poor Jew from Galilee. His church is underwritten by Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), a reptilian paper industrialist whose factories pump C02 into the atmosphere and decimate the surrounding forests. Jeffers invites the moneychanger into the temple, taking his money and influence without hesitation, either failing to notice the irony of a church called “Abundant Life” naming a media center after a fossil fuel magnate, or not caring.
When Toller confronts him on climate change, Jeffers swivels his chair around, literally turning his back on the issue. “What if this is God’s plan?” Jeffers asks an incredulous Toller, to pillage the environment. Truly Panglossian. Like many of our society’s leaders, Jeffers is the right man for the wrong moment.
First Reformed is not a perfect film. It sometimes veers away from the reserved tone that serves it well into surrealism with awkward results, particularly with the ending. But it succeeds in its trenchant exploration of how one responds to life in a collapsing social order. If Schrader’s previous masterpiece, Taxi Driver, brilliantly chronicled the collapse of the New Deal order into Vietnam, Watergate and crime waves, First Reformed brilliantly chronicles the collapse of our own order into climate catastrophe, terrorism and stark inequality. More than any other film released this year, indeed released in many years, First Reformed speaks to our current age in profound ways.
First Reformed premieres at FilmScene in Iowa City on Friday, June 15.